Organist Bruce Cash momentous performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur


Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992): La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)

Bruce Cash (organ)

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Sunday, 17 December, 3pm

To hear a splendid work of meditation for organ on the fine organ of St Mary of the Angels with its marvellous acoustics and its ambience since its recent restoration, was a treat in itself; to hear Bruce Cash play it so well was the icing on the cake. Bruce Cash had described the work in his interesting pre-concert talk, which was accompanied by slides. They included two of the wonderful, tall, narrow, stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and by audio examples from the work, from a recording of Messiaen’s organ at La Trinité church in Paris (where he played for over 60 years), and on the piano. Bruce Cash spoke of the Greek verse rhythms and Indian rhythms Messiaen employed.

Messiaen’s work is in nine parts; each part was introduced by titles and Biblical texts which he used, read in French by Robert Oliver. In what follows I will give the titles in English.

First was The Virgin and the Child. The magical opening passage with its distinctive descending figure, was a euphony for the Epiphany, with clear, repetitive melodies in different scales/modes. The music was subtle and unhurried. Perhaps an impulse of wonderment, of characterising Mary regarding her child. Beautifully clustered notes created a warbling melody, the child peacefully brought into being in the midst of hustle and bustle. The middle section sounded like a great outpouring of many-voiced joy, rhapsodic and free, with an ostinato carillon on the pedals – ecstatic stuff! The music returns to the opening, reiterating the descending figure – everything in cool colours; the music generating contrasting orange and yellow hues. As Bruce Cash said in his pre-concert talk, Messiaen was one of those who saw colours when he heard music.

Second was The Shepherds, which began with separated chords – were these the angels appearing? Some of the melodies were particularly song-like, or chant-like. The music exploited the huge range of sounds available on this organ, including those echoing the shepherds’ pipes. Clustered tones of wonderment, gentle rocking rhythm on reeds, hypnotic in effect and connecting with a greater peace from ages beyond understanding. Registrations were fresh and beautiful.

Third, Eternal Designs, had a broader, fuller sound, slow and grand. Was this an aural picture of God? Again, an interesting scale/mode was employed as the basis, and unusual harmonies were featured. The deep pedal notes gave the music a mysterious, other-worldly mood. Lovely long, rich, dark, solemn, deep undertones, reedy textures suggested relief and light, the bass reaching to the earth’s bowels.

The Word is the title of the fourth section. God declares ‘You are my Son’ to a discordant opening, then there are strident pedal sequences. There are rapid rhythmic figures and thickly clustered chords. A high, shrill melody was succeeded by a return to strident pedals, with shimmering ululations behind. This section was in two parts, the second having a more mellifluous melody appear, in meditative character, calm in its effect after the declamatory mood.

No. 5, The children of God, had a more disturbed, more excitable sound of clustered sonorities. The music developed loud expostulations, but with more conventional harmonies, then dissolved into reassurance. It was a short movement.

No.6, The Angels, featured spectacular galaxies of sounds. There were high and spiky fanfares and cascades, retreating at the end. The programme notes speak of a continuous peal of joy.

Jesus accepts the suffering was the title of no.7. Harsh reeds and blustering utterances contrasted with lighter, higher tones. The effect was like a conversation between two opposing forces – one bluff, angry, and the other mild, conciliatory. Then diapasons brought the voice of acceptance between the opposing ideas. The long final chord was at full volume.

No. 8, The Magi, or Wise Men brought music that was appropriately exotic. There was a travelling character to its rhythm and notation. A recurrent melody could be a song from the East. A more peaceful sequence followed – perhaps the visitors reaching the stable? There was a quiet chord to end. But I did not detect the star overhead that the programme notes described. Simplicity rather than grandeur was the mood.

The final part, No 9, God in our midst, opened loud and spiky, with ponderous pedals. This was followed by a mild sequence (the Virgin Mary utterance of the Magnificat); then angular sounds with rapid, high-pitched figures built momentum. Crashing chords and a brass voice blared forth before a triumphant Widor-like toccata ended the work.

Peter Mechen, who was also at the concert, offered his notes to me; he ended with “an unbridled frisson of energetic outpouring, the music descending spectacularly before winding up and growing like a vortex of cosmic proportion, heading inexorably towards the musics’ great final chord over a descending bass”.

This performance was an amazing tour de force; music played to perfection. What a composer! What an organist!


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