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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La NativitÚ du Seigneur (1935) [61:09]
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 3-4 January 2014, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573332 [61:09]

Messiaen’s epic meditation on the birth of Christ is not only one of the composer’s most luminous creations it’s also one of the greatest solo organ works ever written. There, I’ve said it. As an early convert I’ve never understood why Messiaen provokes such a hostile – nay, vitriolic – response from so many listeners. Is it the Catholic symbolism that runs through so much of his oeuvre, his unique sound-world, or a bit of both? Without acknowledging the composer’s deeply held faith much of what he wrote has little or no context, and whatever one may think of his distinctive ‘voice’ the musical firmament would be a lot dimmer without these radiant scores.

There are many fine recordings of the La NativitÚ, including the composer’s own (EMI/Warner) and those from Jennifer Bate (Unicorn Kanchana/Regis), Gillian Weir (Collins/Priory), Olivier Latry (DG), Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS), Jean-Pierre Lecaudey (Pavane) and my benchmark, Simon Preston (Decca). Weir’s almost complete traversal of Messiaen’s organ works is very distinguished indeed, both artistically and technically, and the composer’s affection for Bate’s recordings is well documented. Latry, Lecaudey and Ericsson are cooler, more clear-eyed than most; certainly, few match Preston for sheer boldness, colour and visceral impact.

As I mentioned in my Lecaudey review the organ and its acoustic are very important factors in one’s perception of La NativitÚ; the mighty CavaillÚ-Coll of Notre-Dame de Paris (Latry) has seldom been so well recorded; ┼rhus Cathedral’s Frobenius (Weir) and Westminster Abbey’s Harrison & Harrison (Preston) are very well caught too. The latter – taped in 1965 – remains one of that company’s finest achievements; indeed, it yields little or nothing to its more recent rivals.

As it happens Tom Winpenny, Assistant Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral, also plays a Harrison & Harrison; built in 1962 and refurbished in 2007-09 it is an imposing instrument that speaks plainly. This H&H may not have the thrilling heft and temperament of a CavaillÚ-Coll but it does have a lovely, full-bodied sound; and on this recording at least reverberation isn’t an issue. Indeed, the clean, unexaggerated sonics – the producer/engineer is Adrian Lucas of Acclaim Productions – is one of the best things about this release. However, I did wonder whether all this clarity and refinement would stand in the way of the score’s raspy, earthier moments.

There’s no doubt that Winpenny’s rendition of La Vierge et l’Enfant (The Virgin and Child) has the air of rapt adoration that the music demands, and the finer, more fretted writing is superbly articulated. That said, there’s a coolness here – an asceticism, if you will – that had me yearning for something a little less austere. Latry is even more cerebral in his DG recording, and while such an approach has its own rewards I do feel that Messiaen is as much about earthly emotions as he is about heavenly aspirations. In that context Winpenny’s Les Bergers (The Shepherds) strikes me as somewhat remote; where is that very human sense of awe, of wonder, that others find here?

Desseins Úternels (Eternal purposes) introduces the organ’s magnificent lower registers, which pulse with a rich, rubied light. However, it’s the pendant loveliness of the instrument’s upper reaches that really enthralls. Alas, there’s a hint of stasis – a potential hazard in this slowly evolving score – and that’s a real pity. As for Le Verbe (The Word) it ought to shake the foundations and overwhelm the senses – which it does in the Weir and Preston recordings. In Winpenny’s hands those descending chords, while impressive, just don’t have that same frisson; curiously Latry isn’t as compelling or immersive as one might expect either.

If nothing else revisiting all these performances in preparation for this review confirms just how diverse these interpretations are. Make no mistake Winpenny’s La NativitÚ is very accomplished; many of the work’s glorious cadences resonate and reassure as they should, and there’s plenty of ravishing detail; that said, Winpenny doesn’t always make the most of Messiaen’s great, shifting intensities. Without strong contrasts La NativitÚ becomes a little bland; I suspect it’s that apparent lack of drama, of a turbulent narrative, that fuels so much anti-Messiaen sentiment.

Winpenny does a good job with Les Enfants de Dieu (The Children of God), although he doesn’t move and entrance as others do; and while Les Anges (The Angels) has celestial blush I longed for a little more impact. Not surprisingly his rendition of JÚsus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) isn’t as lacerating as it can be either. On a more positive note those haunting repeated figures in Les Mages (The Magi) are superbly projected and sustained. Although Preston and Weir handle the ascending jags and precipitous plunges of Dieu parmi nous (God among us) better than most Winpenny has plenty of heft and excitement too.

I like this recording a great deal, but it doesn’t move me as mightily – or as consistently – as the Preston and Weir performances do. Also, those two make this potentially episodic piece seem so much more cumulative and coherent; that’s quite an achievement in itself. As for Latry he’s just too detached for my liking, and the otherwise indispensable Bate isn’t quite as persuasive in La NativitÚ as I once thought. It really depends what you want from this piece; if you prefer your Messiaen light, cool and clear then Winpenny is well worth hearing; however, if you revel in shafts of vibrant, sense-sating colour then stick with Weir and Preston.

The Bate, Weir, Lecaudey and Ericsson discs can be had singly – the Preston is part of a 2-CD set - but Latry’s performance is part of a much bigger box; the good news is that his and Preston’s La NativitÚ can be downloaded separately – and in ‘CD quality’ sound – from Qobuz. Incidentally, Winpenny’s detailed liner-notes – in English and French – are a joy to read; indeed, they underline the high quality of this Naxos issue.

More head than heart; a fine performance, very well recorded.

Dan Morgan