‘Great Music 2013’ on lute and organ: wonderful Messiaen

Bach: Suite for Lute in G minor, BWV 995
Messiaen: La Nativité du Seigneur

Jennifer Chou (organ); Stephen Pickett (lute)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday 6 December 2011, 7.30pm

It is almost exactly two years since I reviewed Thomas Gaynor playing the same mighty Messiaen work, which dates from 1935,  in the same Cathedral series (though that was a lunchtime concert).

About the same number of people were in the audience on both occasions: around 40. However, there was at least one major difference this time: the audience was seated in the gallery above the main door, at the back of the church.  As a note in the printed programme had it, the organ sounded ‘clear and powerful’ from this position (mostly).

The lutenist sat facing the audience, in front of the balcony rail of the gallery. This enabled us to hear him; almost any other position in the Cathedral would have made this difficult or impossible.

It was an interesting juxtaposition of one of the quietest instruments against one that is potentially the loudest.  I found the contrast too great.  The opening Allemande from the Bach Suite sounded rather dull, and in light of what we heard later, it was monochrome.  The playing was so gentle and quiet that it was hard for the sound, in the early part of the evening, to conquer those of coughing and of traffic. However, the gallery was a good place to deliver the desirable intimate ambience, and to enable us to be close to the lutenist.

I know nothing about lute technique, but it seemed to me that an occasional twanging sound on the lower strings was unfortunate, as was the uneven tone produced, some notes sounding strongly while others disappeared.

Jennifer Chou is based in Australia, and is a highly competent organist.  She followed the lute’s Bach Allemande with the first three movements of the Messiaen work; the two further batches of movements were interspersed with movements from the Bach.

Thus we heard ‘The Virgin and the Child’, ‘The Shepherds’ and ‘Eternal Purposes’ in the first sequence.  The excellent programme notes and introductory article about Messiaen were by one David Gammie.  His descriptions of the movements, based in part on Messiaen’s own notes about the music, were very descriptive.  The words about the first movement, based on the plainsong ‘Puer natus est’, were apt: words such as ‘hypnotic dance’ and ‘the music takes flight in an exquisite flute cadenza’.  While the music is vivid, and quite different from any other composer’s works, at times there seems to be a traffic jam of contrasting sounds, rhythms and timbres.

The subtle, ethereal effects used in the second movement are unique to Messiaen. But I was sure I heard the tones of the donkeys, too!  Or perhaps it was a result of memories of John Rutter’s Brother Heinrich’s Christmas at Te Papa the Sunday before last.

The third movement, ‘Eternal Purposes’ was concerned not with the Christmas story but embodied more profound ideas.  Its slow, even ponderous pace was almost soporific, or at least mesmerising.  The lower chords did not sound very distinct, at the considerable distance we were from the pipes.

More lute music, this time the Sarabande and Courante.  Although the former is certainly a slow dance, this rendition seemed a bit too slow to dance to.  The notes were not sounded with equal clarity, and a few were out of tune.  The second dance had more pace, spirit and volume, and involved more counterpoint.

Back to Messiaen.  ‘Le verbe’ (The Word) incorporated many colours from the wide palette available (and Messiaen was one of those rare individuals who saw colours when he heard musical sounds).  The long solo on the cornet stop produced delicious tones.  The solemn melody had a noble character.  The organ certainly sounded very well from the gallery in this movement, giving not only a fine demonstration of the range of pipes, but also precision in the dynamic constrasts, the runs and figures.

The words in the programme notes ‘Messiaen’s music does not evolve or develop… it simply is’ I thought particularly apt for the movement entitled ‘God’s Children’.  The richness and beautiful contrasts were memorable.

‘The Angels’ introduced a wonderful spread through the range of the instrument, and through the tonal colours.  Jennifer Chou’s immaculate technique was equal to all of it.  The audience didn’t worry about what she was doing, so far away.  We simply enjoyed the music with all its marvellous sonorities and dynamics.

The last two movements of the Suite for Lute brought a jolly mood, but it was a huge divergence from the variety of sonorities we had just been hearing. There were fewer unpleasant twangs here, and a more full-bodied tone emerged from the instrument.  The Gavottes and Gigue were presented with more shape and structure than we had had with the earlier movements.

The opening of Messiaen’s seventh movement, ‘Jesus accepts suffering’, was quite shocking in its discordant, dramatic, forte opening chords.  The solemnity of the deep bassoon reply and the tension of the evocation of suffering in the treatment were amply conveyed.

The music for ‘The Wise Men’ easily evoked images of the three wise men travelling across desert, seeing a star, and encountering something that inspired them with awe.

‘God among us’, the climax to the work, was full of exciting episodes and passages.
Technically very demanding, its musical language represented the Incarnation, Communion with Christ and Mary’s ‘Magnificat’.  The luminous, grand final chord, long-held, was a climax of contentment and joy, not of flashy virtuosity.

A towering work, La Nativité du Seigneur was played with mesmeric skill and panache.  This was a mammoth accomplishment, creating a rhapsodic experience, unlike that to be had from any other composer’s music.


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