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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
Richard Gowers (organ)
rec. 2017, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Reviewed as a 24/192 download from
Pdf booklet included

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: not only is Messiaen’s epic meditation on the birth of Christ one of his most astonishing creations, it’s also one of the greatest solo organ pieces ever written. As with so much of his oeuvre, which spans all genres, the composer’s Catholicism is an unequivocal and indivisible part of his unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic. Indeed, it would be impossible to attribute, say, the Turangalîla-Symphonie, Catalogue d'oiseaux or Des Canyons aux étoiles to anyone else. And working my way through Sylvain Cambreling’s Hänssler box of the orchestral music for a future review, I was struck anew by the sheer range and consistency of Messiaen’s craft. But if he’s to be celebrated for anything at all, it must be for his organ works, of which the nine-movement La Nativité du Seigneur is an early example.

There are many fine recordings of the piece, either as one-offs or as part of a larger set. Chief among the latter is the composer’s own performance (Warner) and that of his protégé, Jennifer Bate, whose version, first released on Unicorn Kanchana, was subsequently reissued by Regis. That has now resurfaced in a 6-CD set from Treasure Island. Then there’s the formidable Dame Gillian Weir on Collins, a performance – and set – which sounds even better in its latest incarnation from Priory. And don’t overlook the refreshing Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS), or the ‘more head than heart’ Tom Winpenny, whose La Nativité is probably the best thing in his cycle to date (Naxos). There’s also the highly regarded Olivier Latry (DG). Of the standalones, I much enjoyed-Pierre Lecaudey’s performance (Pavane).

Inevitably, the organist’s individual playing style and choice of instrument influences our perceptions of this music. The Cavaillé-Colls of St Trinité (Messiaen) and Notre Dame (Latry) may share a common heritage, but modifications and very different acoustics ensure they don’t sound alike. Different again are the Danion-Gonzalez at Beauvais (Bate), the mighty Frobenius of Aarhus Cathedral in Denmark (Weir), the 1983 Pascal Quoirin in St Rémy (Lecaudey), the 1987 Grönlund of Luleå Cathedral in Sweden (Ericsson) and Winpenny’s Harrison & Harrison in St Albans. All are well caught by their respective recording teams. For me, though, the combination of Simon Preston, the Harrison & Harrison of Westminster Abbey and Decca’s superb sound is simply unbeatable. Taped in 1965, and recently reissued on Eloquence, that version wears its years very lightly.

Not a comprehensive list of course, just a hint of what Richard Gowers is up against. He’s new to me, although I see he’s organist in a Duruflé programme, also from King’s, that was much praised by John Quinn. Since then, the chapel’s Harrison & Harrison, so closely associated with its famous choir, has been extensively refurbished. And, if the first movement of the Messiaen, La Vierge et l'Enfant, is anything to go by, it’s all gain. Apart from sheer tonal beauty, there’s a striking clarity to the overall sound that really brings out the music’s luminous inner detail. For his part, Gowers calibrates this opener most beautifully, every ‘voice’ allowed to sing its song. Benjamin Sheen’s full, atmospheric recording is exemplary, too.

What’s clear from the outset is that Gowers’ La Nativité is going to be wonderfully poised and inward, sans what some regard as the excessive weight of his big-name rivals (Preston in particular). That, in itself, requires a degree of recalibration, but it’s an easy adjustment to make when the performance is as persuasive as this. The updated organ’s upper reaches are showcased in the second movement, Les Bergers, its sense of quiet adoration – its moving stillness – perfectly pitched. As if that weren’t enough, Gowers invests the music with a rare but telling three dimensionality, cascades of sound suspended in this votive space. The sustained pedals in Desseins éternels are very present, yet they never obscure the sparkling diadems above. Goodness, I’ve not heard so much in this score before, nor have I heard it presented with such unseamed loveliness.

The start of Le Verbe, more dramatic, has all the dark, ‘woody’ character one could wish for, but, as always, it’s the meditational aspect of this music that ravishes the heart and ear. I’d say the album would be worth it for this movement alone, such is the level of inspiration displayed by composer and organist alike. Of course, good, unfussy engineering is an essential part of the process; really, organ recordings don’t come more faithful than this. Some may prefer the likes of Preston and Weir in Les Enfants de Dieu and Jésus accepte la souffrance, but what Gowers may lack in weight – that word again – he more than makes up for with a compelling, sensibly scaled narrative. That said, there’s no denying the affirming splendour of the King’s organ at the end of that latter section. (In between, the fibrillations of Les Anges are superbly articulated.)

The penultimate movement, Les Mages, is proof, if it were needed, that there’s a very human side to this drama, the wise men, for all their sagacity, overwhelmed in the presence of the Christ child. Gowers conveys their surrender to majesty in a final genuflection that’s both simple and intensely moving. (He captures that defining moment better than anyone I know.) The finale, Dieu parmi nous, is often played as a concert piece, the thrilling dynamics making it an obvious crowd pleaser. That’s how Preston does it, but in the last of his valuable correctives, Gowers reminds us it’s all part of a wider and more sustained set of evocations and epiphanies. And what a pealing, precipitous close it is, as hefty – and as heaven-storming – as it needs to be.

I must confess that on first hearing I registered the beauty of this performance, but not its other strengths and subtleties. I suspect that comes of expecting the ‘big’ sound I’ve been used to for so long. No, I still wouldn’t be without Preston – understandable, perhaps,as I imprinted on that recording – but the intimacy and illumination of Gowers’ reading has brought this piece to life in ways I scarcely thought possible. Naturally, top-notch engineering plays a vital role in such reappraisals. Will Gowers and Sheen add to this trove any time soon? I fervently hope so.

A remarkably perceptive and profoundly moving performance; superlative sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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