Messiaen La Nativité du Seigneur Aeolus

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
Mark Steinbach (organ)
rec. 2023, Église Saint-François-de-Sales, Lyon, France
Aeolus AE11401 SACD [54]

It’s one of the greatest solo organ works ever composed. Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur is a nine-movement depiction of the birth of Christ. These nine meditations are shot through with Catholic symbolism, contemplating each element of the Christmas story. Messiaen had recently assumed the post of ‘titulaire’ organist at La Trinité in Paris when the work was born. His association with the famous Cavaillé-Coll instrument there would endure for some sixty years until his death. He penned La Nativité du Seigneur near Grenoble in the summer of 1935, and the work received its premiere at La Trinité on 27 February 1936. Messiaen had in mind the rich orchestral sonorities of La Trinité’s magnificent organ when he conceived the work.

Mark Steinbach, the organist here, explains in the booklet his choice of instrument for this recording. The organ of La Trinité, for which the work was written, has undergone significant alterations and modifications since Messiaen’s time, in a 1965 renovation. The Cavaillé-Coll of the Église Saint-François-de-Sales in Lyon remains unaltered and is closer in specifications to the original La Trinité instrument that the composer would have known. Steinbach feels he can realize his interpretation in a way closer to the composer’s intention and vision on this particular organ.

The cycle opens with La Vierge et l’Enfant (The Virgin and Child), which is one of ethereal whisperings and soothing ecstasy. Steinbach opts for hushed luminous registrations to convey rapt contemplation. This is carried forward into Les Bergers (The Shepherds), which weaves a hypnotic spell over the listener. The effect is truly magical. The rhetoric ratchets up in Le Verbe (The Word), which is ushered in by a resplendent flourish. Steinbach captures the drama, intensity and raw power of this, the lengthiest mediation at eleven minutes; it saturates the senses. It’s a lofty evocation of God’s descent to earth as the Word made flesh.

Richly textured sonorities inform Les Enfants de Dieu (The Children of God). We get some idea of the Lyon instrument’s arresting power in this meditation. Les Anges (The Angels) I would describe as a swirling canvas of kaleidoscopic colour. Two pathos-laden chords introduce Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering). The mood is unrelieving and implacable. The cycle ends with Dieu parmi nous (God amongst us), another lengthy piece at just over nine minutes. It’s a scintillating showpiece, often used as a stand-alone by recitalists. Jubilant and triumphant, it brings a close to the cycle with fitting splendour.

In spectacular SACD sound this recording provides a pleasing alternative to my hitherto favorite versions by Jennifer Bates and Simon Preston. In fact, this new Aeolus venture offers more immediate and vivid sound quality, and nudges itself into first place. Mark Steinbach offers a wealth of lofty insights and a tremendous variety of colour and shadings to this magnificent score. I would highly recommend it.

Stephen Greenbank

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