Messiaen is the only big name among contemporary composers to have written a significant body of organ music of importance to a wider constituency than organ buffs. Accordingly, he is the featured composer in the current series of recitals at the Festival Hall. Last Thursday John Scott, the organist of St Paul's cathedral, played his Christmas cycle of nine pieces, "La nativité du seigneur".
They remain the composer's best-known works for the organ, and with their colourful and exotic invention, it's easy to see why. It's not music which leaves a very wide margin for interpretation, because Messiaen is extremely precise about what he wants, including the choice of stops. His rhythms, too, are so distinctive, so personal – unlike the rhythms of composers who draw on a received language – that it might seem all you can do is to render them accurately. Yet it isn't obvious that you should play the little group of grace notes recurring in the opening section of the first piece, "La vierge et l'enfant", gently, or subtly prolong the first of that group, as John Scott did, to nice effect.
Nor, in the eighth piece, "Les mages", would every organist allow the staccato chords, wending their way throughout, the very slight flexibility of pulse which suggests human rather than mechanical motion. That was nice too.
Then there are decisions to make about tempo, which Messiaen indicates only with words like slow and fast, or in relative terms, without metronome markings, though there is enough of a performing tradition, and Messiaen's own recording, to serve as a guide. Tempo is, however, subject to the acoustics of a building, and Scott was brave in allowing slow music to be really slow.
As for registration, the "orchestration" of organ music, Messiaen imagined the inimitable sounds of his instrument at the Trinity church in Paris, the like of which is hardly found over here. By now, this hardly inhibits players. You can't insist on authenticity to such an extent that you only play Messiaen on a big Cavaillé-Coll organ. And Scott approximated all the right sounds. In "Jésus accepte la souffrance", the tremulous, silvery quality of quiet Swell stops was beautiful, while a big pedal reed made a splendidly earthy fart.
The least successful of the cycle was perhaps "Les anges", which despite a brilliant, even harsh, registration, somehow failed to dazzle. It seemed a bit clinical. A small disappointment, though, in a short yet, on the whole, nourishing evening.
The next organ recital at the RFH is given by Thomas Trotter on 19 Feb (020-7960 4242)Reuse content