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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur
Richard Gowers (organ)
rec. 2017, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

2018 was a bit of a Messiaen year for me. Aside from some of the big hitters like Turangalîla or the Quartet for the End of Time, I’d always fought slightly shy of the French composer; but some brilliant performances from Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival showed me what I was missing. His Catalogue d’oiseaux and transcendent Visions de l’Amen were revelatory in their clarity and poetry, and best of all was a performance of Des canyons aux étoiles… This work, more than the others, showed me that Messiaen is a composer who takes his time and allows you to linger in his sound world, worrying less about symphonic development and more about creating a huge sense of space in which the listener can ruminate, expand and simply be.

This new disc of La Nativité du Seigneur, which I listened to just before Christmas 2018, set the seal on that, and I’m sure I enjoyed it because I’d had those previous Messiaen epiphanies. However, it’s also a wonderful thing in and of itself, and appeared on many critics’ lists of 2018’s finest discs.

Some Messiaen ultras might be a bit concerned about playing this, his most famous organ work, on a quintessentially English organ; but any who do can safely set their concerns aside. For one thing, the piece has a great heritage at King’s specifically: Richard Gowers points out in his own booklet note that the work’s final movement, Dieu parmi nous, is often chosen as the final voluntary for the famous Nine Lessons service on Christmas Eve. Leaving that aside, this many-tentacled masterpiece sounds superb on the King’s organ, and not only because of the magisterial acoustic.

You get a special sense of that in the fourth section, Le Verbe, where the lightness and fruitiness of the top line melds (and contrasts) beautifully with a gorgeously fruity bass line, creating a splurged sound that is both utterly French and entirely in keeping with the instrument and its setting. But then, that’s true of the whole performance. There is, for example, an eerie strangeness to the opening, the organ’s reeds interacting with the music’s harmonics in a manner that’s often downright weird, one would suspect intentionally so; and the emerging melody has a quality about it that is sinuous but, nonetheless, songful and rapt in its beauty.

The chords of the Shepherds appear and disappear like ephemeral starlight, but with the regularity of a ticking clock. I found it utterly hypnotic, and it’s enhanced by the subsequent melody, which ambles along like a medieval carol in search of a harmonic ground. It’s wonderful, and there’s a similarly magical sense of growth to Les Enfants de Dieu, the linear sense of crescendo representing mankind’s elevation into becoming children of God before subsiding into rapt contemplation.

Les Anges really brings out the brightness and brilliance at the top of the organ’s register. The dexterity and voluble energy of the performer makes the muscular angularity of this movement really striking, and the succeeding part’s juxtaposition of anguished chords powerfully represents the impending agony of Christ’s Passion.

The music of the Magi is delightful, reminding me of icicles dripping, magically representing their journey home, but without any of the orientalist stereotypes we might hear elsewhere. Then Dieu parmi nous gives us a resplendent conclusion, tying together some aspects of the work’s previous building blocks while creating a triumphant celebration of the miracle of the incarnation.

This isn’t an SACD, but it still sounded stunning in the 2.0 stereo of my speakers. Both the performance and the recorded sound are real winners, and there are two excellent essays in the booklet, including a guide through the work that I found extremely useful. All told, then, I can warmly recommend this, and not only because I’m a Messiaen convert. If you, too, are willing to take the plunge then this would be a great disc to help you do so.

Simon Thompson
Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month) ~ John Quinn


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