Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington, Friday 4 December 2009
This was the third year that Anglican Cathedral has presented Messiaen’s Christmas celebration on the big organ. Though it didn’t draw as big an audience as Messiah a week earlier at the other cathedral, the Happy Few enjoyed a commanding and brightly coloured account of Messiaen’s early masterpiece. It was written in the year of my birth, though I was much older that he was at its composition (28) when I first got to know Messiaen – probably over 40.
Though the organ at St Paul’s is capable of producing the characteristic sounds of the English organ, it is strong in vivid brass and treble woodwind stops, well adapted to the qualities of post-Romantic French organ music, and it was these that attracted Richard Apperley in the performance.
This characteristic was vividly heard at the start of the first piece, La vierge et l’enfant, opening with trembling, tiny, bell-like sounds, conveying the dim, cold atmosphere of the wintery manger. And Desseins éternels, with the presence of constant underpinning of deep pedal notes, Apperley again depicted a subdued feeling of awe, of the divine mystery.
It was with Le Verbe that the organ first expressed itself in bolder diapason sounds, though after a mere three minutes or so, Messiaen offers a musical version of the Word, employing the cornet stop in gentle, meandering lines, over obscure pedal harmonies.
Apperley’s penchant for piercing treble registrations emerged again in Les Anges, culminating in an imagining of angels fluttering their wings.
From that, the ugly descent to Jésus accepte la souffrance, was a remarkable experience, with fearful, heavy pedals treading out Christ’s three burdens of suffering.
I have been familiar with Marie-Claire Alain’s recorded performance (among others); the motion of a swaying procession of the Magi to be found in her playing makes it one of the most singular episodes; I did not feel quite that effect in Apperley’s playing. While his registrations were brighter, he nevertheless captured the sense of mystery, of being drawn towards something of which the wise men have only an uneasy premonition.
The last part, Dieu parmi nous, always seems a most remarkable creation, with its feeling of chaotic mingling of many elements, sparkling, fast-fingered joyousness, toccata-like episodes; Apperley distinguished himself here through the vivid contrasts he presented on different manuals, loud, penetrating stops riding over a subdued murmuring background, and the series of Bachian chordal passages, eventually building to a growing ecstasy with the series of teasingly unresolved chords that creates the kind of organ peroration that seems fundamental to the French school and to the French flair for dramatizing religious experiences. It was fully realized in this brilliant performance.