Music in Durham

Messiaen – La Nativité du Seigneur

Durham_organThe Christmas baubles have been packed away, the thank-you letters written and the more virtuous folk out there are almost at the end of their “dry January”, but as far as the church is concerned, the Christmas season spreads gloriously out to the feast of Candlemas on 2 February.  With all the other distractions out of the way, this is a particularly good time to absorb Messiaen’s nine organ meditations on Christ’s birth, La Nativité du Seigneur, performed by James Lancelot. 

La Nativité du Seigneur is wonderfully absorbing music that absolutely demands your full attention. It begins with soft flutterings, perhaps the quickening of the unborn baby, in a movement about the Virgin and child and builds up to the most ecstatic climax in Dieu parmi nous. In this last movement, seated in the cathedral quire, with the organ pipes on both sides, we were submerged in sound so loud it was almost tangible, God inescapably among us.

In between, Messaien vividly paints the familiar elements of the Christmas story, taking the familiar musical clichés of flutes for the shepherds and exotic “Eastern” sounds for the Kings, but transforming them into something wondrous. Rhythms fall about all over the place, never doing what you expect, and Messaien mixes up the organ stops to produce strange combinations of timbre, overlaid with glittering bright discords. In Les Anges the notes run in crazy, dizzying dances, swirling to the very top of the keyboard, played here so fluently, with the dancelike pulse throbbing strongly beneath.

The programme noted that James Lancelot first played La Nativité du Seigneur forty years ago, and that he has been fascinated by it for most of his life. His love for the piece and his deep familiarity with it came through clearly; despite the demands of Messiaen’s writing and the incredible volume of the later movements, there was nothing flashy here, just a fervent desire to draw us, body and soul, into the spiritual heart of Christmas.

I don’t know whether organists at Durham have been doing this for years, or whether it’s just a recent innovation (Francesca Massey played it last year) but it’s a lovely thing to do as a way of keeping the Christmas light shining on in the darkness of January.


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