Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) still divides opinion. For some listeners, even well-attuned ones, his work remains unreachable. Noisy, too many notes, too discordant. And too eclectic. After all, what happens when you put together, say, intense Parisian Catholicism, birdsong, powerful and colourful organs, modal tonality, strange forms of transposition, word-painting, and various undefined influences from the East? Noise – or genius?
And then there is the minor matter that much of this music is playable only by a tiny number of organists in the world.
So what is worth the general listener’s attention? There is a conversation to be had about Messiaen’s later works for organ. Le Livre du Saint-Sacrement (1984-5) demands, for example, as much from the listener as from the player and it remains on the edge of the canon – admired but remote. But earlier Messiaen is different. Even doubters can be persuaded. And the masterpiece of his early works for organ – Messiaen was organist of the Church of La Trinité in Paris for 61 years – is his nine meditations on Christ’s birth, La Nativité du Seigneur (1935).
This was premiered in 1936 by three players, none of whom was the composer. That raises the question, of course, as to whether Messiaen could properly play the pieces he had written. He recorded his own compositions, for sure. But are they definitive? There is no expectation that composers are their own best interpreters in performance. We know that Haydn was no virtuoso. We know that Elgar’s Organ Sonata (1895) was beyond his abilities as an organist. So why should Messiaen’s performance of Messiaen be a guide?
The important question then becomes: which player can turn this written music into performed music?
There have been remarkable performers of La Nativité, both live and in recording. Gillian Weir and Jennifer Bate remain some of the most compelling interpreters; more recently, in recording, Tom Winpenny has persuaded listeners afresh of the shape and colour of this extraordinarily original writing. A performance of the nine movements has become in UK and US cathedrals and major churches, among others, an annual event that marks the passage of Christmas and Epiphany. The late John Scott electrified audiences in a performance in December 2001 at London’s Royal Festival Hall: that is still remembered as a touchstone of what La Nativité could be.
So the bar is high.
Richard Gowers, both organist and pianist, chose La Nativité for his first solo recording as an organist. Gowers had the misfortune – if I might so phrase it – to be the Organ Scholar of King’s College, Cambridge when its world-famous Harrison & Harrison organ was sent off to Harrison’s workshops in Durham to be restored. It must have been disappointing to have to play substitutes for the magnificent organ that resides within one of the oldest surviving cases in the United Kingdom.
Gowers is a prize-winning Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and, as it happens, the prodigiously talented grandson of the composer Patrick Gowers. Patrick was widely known as a composer for film and TV but he also wrote the celebrated Toccata for Organ in memory of a fine organist, Brian Runnett, killed in a car crash. (Richard’s own performance of this is on YouTube.)
So it is poetic justice, or rather musical justice, that Richard Gowers has returned to the King’s console to play a revelatory performance of Messiaen’s probing, thoughtful and daringly inventive set of reflections on both the event and the mystery of the Incarnation.
To enumerate some pleasures. First, Gowers never gets the pace wrong, and his subtle variations of pulse – chords placed just where you want them, not where the metronome says they should be – is the first noticeable feature of this recording, from King’s own label. If the most important stop on an organ is the acoustic of the building, Gowers and his sound engineers do not put a foot wrong. Second, the judgment of pace allows the spirituality of this music to speak: it is in the best performances a kind of prayer, from the disturbing power of ‘‘Jesus accepts suffering’’ to the concluding ‘‘God among us’’. The final descending pedal phrase, of this latter movement, with the staggering power of the King’s pedal division, is audible as the Incarnation itself: God descending to be with men. It is an exceptional union of music with theology.
Messiaen was as imaginative in organ colour as Jehan Alain, who sadly did not survive the Second World War. And here, Gowers produces a persistently altering range of sound, all in the service of the music rather than the player. And for essential clarity of performance – every note audible and distinct, despite that famous acoustic – it would be hard to ask for more. A noble, and moving, achievement.
Francis O’Gorman held an organ scholarship at the University of Oxford and writes widely on music. He is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh
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