Messiaen: La Nativité du Seigneur from Thomas Gaynor at St Paul’s

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday 16 December 2011, 12.45pm

While writing this review I was listening to the radio: choirs and audience were singing the New Zealand Anthem in the Wellington Town Hall, at the conclusion of this year’s ‘Big Sing’ Secondary Schools Choral Festival.  Accompanying the singing was – Thomas Gaynor, on the organ of the Town Hall.

It is great to see a young man of such talent take up the organ, and win numbers of scholarships, as Thomas Gaynor has.  Approximately 40 people were there to hear his playing, in this last of the year’s “Great Music” series a the Cathedral.

Olivier Messiaen’s work (The Nativity of Our Lord, in English) is quite enchanting, and full of huge contrasts.  It was pleasant to have a whole recital devoted to one composer, and one work, instead of the usual dodging from one style and musical language to another.

In addition to a descriptive phrase in the printed programme after the titles of each of the nine parts of the work, often quoted from the Bible, there was a lengthy quotation from the composer’s own writing about his composition.

The work could be described as an ecstatic utterance, but at the same time, controlled.  Much of the music is very quiet in this 1935 composition.  The composer says “Emotion and sincerity above all else”.  The note goes on to explain that there are three viewpoints: theology, instrumentation and music, and then describes which movements cover the several theological ideas.

This is followed by a description of the instrumentation, i.e. use of registrations of the ranks of pipes, after the statement “…each piece is laid out in large panels.  An economical use of timbre in tuttis of varying colours and densities…”.  Finally, he describes his means of expression, such as “the chord on the dominant”.

The first section is titled “The Virgin and the Child.   It is quietly contemplative, yet with rich harmonies, and some of Messiaen’s beloved bird-song.  Towards the end there is a wonderful ppp sequence.

“The Shepherds” come next.  The music appears simpler, with short, detached treble chords against continuous harmony in the left hand. The effect of hearing the shepherds from a distance, followed by a more vibrant passage which seems closer echoes the words: “…the shepherds returning home, glorifying and praising God.”

The third movement is entitled “Eternal Purposes”, which is appropriately slow and grand, with great clarity.  There was considerable use of the bass, with light treble accompaniment.

“The Word” featured more clustered chords, with strong pedal below, and lots of discords.

“The Children of God” was a very thoughtful section, like a continuous song in the treble, with sparse accompaniment of slow, modulating chords, including use of the pedals, which had mostly not been obvious in the previous movements.

The music became much more extraverted for “The Angels”, with thick chords perhaps conveying the celestial army.  After a brief time of flamboyance, the music died down and became angular, with sharp treble passages floating very fast into the high stratosphere of pipes, shimmering like heavenly beings.

“Jesus Accepts Suffering” featured rough, low chords, and a pedal solo interspersed between chords, leading to a loud ending.

Movement VII, “The Magi” used the pedals as the soprano solo line in a chorale-like melody with a very light treble accompaniment.  Towards the end, the treble line changed to flutes for a most attractive conclusion.

The final movement “God among us” begins with a stark, loud opening, followed by loud notes on the pedals. There is much contrast in registration and rhythms.  The texture thickens towards the end, before a magnificent, double forte concluding passage.

It goes without saying that Messiaen’s music is utterly individual, and his knowledge of and use of the organ is superbly idiosyncratic, hugely varied, and masterly.

It was a tour-de-force and a triumph for a young organist to play this hour-long work. with such sensitivity and accomplishment.  There was always lots going on for both hands and feet, never mind the changes of registration.

Messiaen, I’m sure, would have been pleased, and proud of this performance.


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