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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) [58:48]
Arkadiusz Bialic (organ)
rec. 2018, The Divine Mercy Basilica, Cracow
DUX 1557 [58:48]

For me, La Nativité du Seigneur was entry level for Olivier Messiaen’s music. At the Church of Scotland in Glasgow, where I attended in the mid-1970s, the organist Kenneth Dawkins was a great enthusiast of this composer. He used to play some of the slower music from La Nativité as an opening voluntary. The congregation did not appreciate it. They preferred Handel’s Largo, Easthope Martin’s Evensong and even my own offering of Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. Mr Dawkins played the entire suite for me in private. As a teenager, I was amazed by the sound-world of Messiaen’s music heard in that organ loft. It all sounded so modern and even dangerously advanced, despite having been written some 40 years previously. I came to like La Nativité and many of Messiaen’s other organ works, probably because my elders and ‘betters’ didn’t’.

Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur was written in 1935 when he was only 27 years old. It was to establish his reputation decisively. Whether one likes or detests the composer’s music, this work is usually regarded as a masterpiece. La Nativité consists of nine meditations on the theme of the Nativity but it is more than just the Christmas Story in music; it follows the events from the Virgin Birth to the Epiphany where God is revealed in Jesus Christ. Messiaen has built the work around his profound theological insights which can be discovered in any commentary on this work.

In fact, La Nativité du Seigneur is a relatively benign piece of music to listen to. It is infinitely much harder to play and analyse. The good news is that the listener is entitled to ignore the technicalities of synthetic modes and scales of limited transposition, the added value rhythms, the chains of augmented fifths chords, and other harmonic devices. Just hearing this music should be enough to bring enjoyment, satisfaction, and possibly some spiritual uplift.

I remember a friend telling me that she enjoyed the sound of this music but did not ‘get’ the religious symbolism and for her, this spoilt the entire experience. I am OK with the underlying theology, but can see from where she, and, I guess, many others are coming from. There is a solution. The composer himself noted that some of the inspiration for this work came from the mountainous landscape around Grenoble where it was written and then the whole kaleidoscopic imagery of French stained-glass windows fed into his imagination. Messiaen was ‘afflicted’ by chromesthesia, which is the ability to perceive various colours when hearing certain chords and notes, and presumably vice versa. I understand that there are also some early allusions to birdsong. All this leads me to think that La Nativité can be enjoyed as an abstract piece of music inspired by the numinous effect of light and landscape.

Currently, 19 versions of La Nativité are listed in the ArkivMusic catalogue. Enthusiasts of this work will probably have a fair selection of them in their collections. I listen to La Nativité once a year, usually at Christmastide. For many years, my ‘go-to’ recording was played by Messiaen-specialist Jennifer Bate (Regis). As part of my preparation for this review, I revisited ‘Le Verbe’ from her recital. It is my favourite movement from this work and the one I use to judge other performances. I listened to the same piece played by Arkadiusz Bialic; it has all the attributes of a perfect performance and a considerable flair for interpretation. The balance between the power and the majesty of the meditation’s opening section and the long, almost timeless, lyricism reflecting the ‘eternal divine and ever-present word’ is ideal.

Throughout La Nativité, Bialic’s pace seems just about right. Equally exciting were his registrations which are valuable for their interesting tonal colouring. I was enchanted by his magical playing in ‘Les Bergers’ which really did create an image of ‘a cold and frosty morning.’ Bialic is well able to create a prayerful mood, even when the music is moving rapidly. This is particularly important in the skittish ‘Les Anges’. Clearly, the final movement ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ is a ‘Widorian’ Toccata, but even here, the result is a ‘theological’ paean of praise that brings the entire proceedings to a triumphant and optimistic conclusion: God incarnate is revealed to humankind as Jesus Christ.

The acoustic of the Divine Mercy Basilica in Cracow is excellent, allowing the powerful reed stops to be just as effective as the quieter flues and strings. I was able to hear every detail of the complex chords and ‘melodies.’

Why do some record companies insist on allowing artistic pretensions to overrule utility? The text of the booklet, which is an integral part of the gatefold CD is written in a small white font on a black background. With my eyesight, it might as well be illegible and looking at the DUX website for a .pdf download was no help, so, if I am honest, I ignored the text and listened to the music. That said, the booklet does include the full specification of the superb Woloman-based ZYCH organ. The organ builder’s website came up as unavailable, and Norton blocked an intrusion from it!

Finally, back to Kenneth Dawkins. He once told me that he and a friend had gone to hear a recital at Olivier Messiaen’s church in Paris, the Église de la Sainte-Trinité. They were all set for some of the Frenchman’s great organ suites; imagine their surprise when the maestro presented an all-Bach programme.

John France

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