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Messiaen's Music in and for Church
Westminster Cathedral, Friday 24th October 2008

James Macmillan 'Mass' (selected movements)
Olivier Messiaen 'O Sacrum Convivum!'; 'Eclairs sur l'Au dela'

Westminster Cathedral Choir
Martin Baker – conductor
Matthew Martin – organ
Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra
Thierry Fischer – conductor

The London Oratory
Monday 20th October 2008
Patrick Russill – organ
Messiaen 'Meditations sur la Mystere de la Sainte Trinite' (excerpts)
Charles Tournemire 'L'Orgue Mystique' (selections)
Jean Titelouze 'Hymn: Ave Maris Stella'
Satie 'Messe de Pauvres - Kyrie
Monday 27th October
David Titterington - organ
London Oratory Choir
Messiaen 'Livre du Saint Sacrament' (excerpts)
Gregorian Chant for the Feast of Corpus Christi

As the anniversary year draws to its close, the commemorations of Messiaen's work are now moving to a focus on his late works. These three performances all focused on music which is specifically for liturgical use, or which has a clear religious theme, which is a very significant aspect of this composer's oeuvre.

The Cathedral performance was very much an evening of two halves, but rather disconnected ones. The first work, James Macmillan's 'Mass' was written for this particular venue, its atmosphere and its acoustic with its vast Byzantine curves. Westminster Cathedral has for me the feeling of a busy place where prayer and worship happen nothwithstanding, and Macmillan's 'Mass' captures this, 'it is at once earthly and heavenly'. It builds on a tradition of modern choral settings of the Mass in the vernacular which includes the Missa Brevis which Benjamin Britten wrote also for this Cathedral. To my surprise, I find the sense of spiritual tension less in this than in some of Macmillan's ostensibly 'secular' works, and I am not sure that this limited selection of excerpts performed in constrained conditions showed it at its best.

'O Sacrum Convivum' – an unaccompanied motet sung by the Cathedral choir -which followed was the simplest of the evening's works and actually worked best. Written in 1937, it sets Latin text honouring the blessed sacrament to harmonies mimicking plainchant. It had a straightforward beauty which was moving and effective, and drew together Macmillan's opening work with the Messiaen which followed.

This short piece had another outing the following Monday, as part of an evening of music for Corpus Christi ( a little unseasonally !) at the Oratory, concluding their series of Messiaen's organ music, which has been presented in a context of related works both for organ and for choir. The Oratorians gave a rich full sound and perhaps more polish, but the Cathedral choir's performance had a straightforward simplicity which I found more moving in the context of performance in a religious environment.

I quite liked the feeling of a reflective and prayerful evening at the end of a busy week which this first half of Friday's performance at the Cathedral brought. The second half, whatever its other qualities, did not really integrate with this at all. Despite its strong religious sensibilities (as in so much of Messiaen's work), one was very firmly back to the concert hall metaphorically, albeit remaining in the cathedral physically. The division was further emphasised by the entirely separate forces in the two sections, neither the choir nor the organ returning in the second half. This meant that the two sections of the performance almost inevitably remained disparate in their effect on the listener's consciousness.

It is an interesting idea to offer the opportunity for the listener to compare Messiaen's work with that of a more recent composer also profoundly influenced by the catholic faith. However, James Macmillan's sound world is rather different and the two do not in fact work very well togther acoustically as opposed to intellectually.

'Eclairs sur l'Au Dela' represents 'glimpses of the beyond' – sudden flashes of the heavenly world, and was Messiaen's last completed orchestral work. Much of its inspiration comes from the Book of Revelation, the last Book of the Bible and one concerned with visions of the apocalypse. It has some structural and indeed thematic similarities with the Turangalila symphony but is a darker more portentious work.

This performance concluded a series of events at the Royal Academy of Music during this Messiaen year, which explored some of the outer reaches of the composer's oeuvre.
A large orchestra of young performers were playing a difficult work by a composer in his eighties, written in the last year of his life. They had the further burden of the effect of extensive scaffolding on the acoustic. It is perhaps not surprising that, whilst their efforts were extremely valiant, the results were somewhat patchy.

The playing improved as it went on – perhaps reflecting the difficulty with the disturbed acoustic – and in a couple of the movements one saw what they could achieve when the music 'gelled'. The first sign of this was with some effective thunderclaps in the sixth movement, Les sept anges avec les sept trompettes, and it became fully demonstrated in the eighth – Les etoiles et la gloire, which was indeed glorious with a light, glistening and effective sound which was Messiaen at his best and a credit to the players and to Thierry Fischer.

Messiaen enthusiasts have been spoilt by the number of quite outstanding performances of his major works in London during the last year, such as last week's Transfiguration under Kent Nagano at the South Bank and Pierre-Aimard Laurent's amazing Vingt Regards in the same venue earlier. It is commendable that those responsible for the programming are not shying away from the more intrinsically challenging works and are including young musicians as well as established performers, but inevitably those performances which are more uneven will lose by the ready comparison which can be made with those of quite stellar brilliance which the festival has brought us.

The use of an ecclesiastical space for performance worked much better in my opinion at the Oratory, where music written for the church was performed without liturgy but in a spiritual and respectful atmosphere, widening its appeal but without diminishing its numen. Throughout this series of Monday evening recitals, the church has been lit with candles and censed with incense.

The Oratory is in my opinion a venue better suited to the French organ tradition than any of the other spaces in London used in the Messiaen retrospective, and the recitals there have been a sheer delight, especially in Patrick Russill's exquisite recital on 20th October.

The Messiaen work featured in this performance, the third in the series of four, was his 'Meditations sur le Mystere de la Sainte Trinite', the recital opening with its sixth movement. This focuses on God the Son, and quotes chants from the Mass of the Epiphany – a theme continued in the next work, the first of three of Tournemire's offices from L'Orgue Mystique, that for the Epiphany.

Later in the programme two others were played, Touremire having been a significant influence on Messiaen and having recommended him for the position of organist at La Trinite in Paris. The second selection from the 'Trinite' meditations (number eight, 'Dieux est Simple') was preceded by a short but dramatic 'Alleluia' on 'Clap Your Hands All You People' and followed by an Office for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which Messiaen particularly admired and commended (and which has been recorded on this particular instrument by Ralph Downes, who nominated Patrick Russill to succeed him at the Oratory at the tender age of only 23). This is indeed a very fine work, and Patrick Russill's playing was most enjoyable.

Unaccountably, given the prominence and reputation of this soloist, the audience was rather smaller than at the opening recital of the series (which was given by the Oratory's up-and-coming Assistant Organist, Charles Cole, and centred upon Dupre's vespers). However, those present enjoyed an uplifting and truly beautiful performance which was a great delight.

The series concluded with another very fine performance, this time by David Titterington, who played movements from the Livre du Saint Sacrament, a work on which he is a noted authority, interspersed with Gregorian chant for the Feast of Corpus Christi from the Oratory's choir. A study forum at the Royal Academy of Music, where David Titterington is Head of Organ Studies, prior to the Cathedral performance on Friday had
explored this cycle in the context of the orchestral work Eclairs sur l'Au Dela, performed that evening (see above).

The songs of birds (one of Messiaen's particular interests and sources of inspiration) were combined with the liturgical elements in this mature work which almost uniquely drew together some of this composer's main characteristics. Every line was very clear and easy to make out in this skillful performance, the different birdsongs readily identifiable.

Especially fine was the sixth movement, 'La Manne et le Panne de Vie', which represents the falling of manna from heaven in the desert (which is liturgically linked to the use of bread in the eucharist in this work). The music evokes the desert, with songs of two birds of Israel being used to great effect and particular beauty, the Desert Lark and the Mourning Chat. Also noteworthy was the use of the nightingale's song (which floats over a sustained chord of A flat major) in the following movement, the scene of the institution of the eucharist in the upper room, as if the nightingale's singing is coming on through an open window.

This was music of very great delicacy, skill and beauty - both in its writing and in the playing heard tonight. In drawing together central themes of Messiaen's work, it has formed a fitting conclusion to this series of his liturgical organ works. There has been an excellent and varied showcasing of Messiaen's work this autumn in London, which has included this presentation of his organ works in a way which is both informative and enjoyable, with top class soloists performing in a beautiful and contextually appropriate setting.

Julie Williams