, September 2011
Having recently immersed myself in this work as part of a review for the main site I thought this would be a good opportunity to try the download of Hans-Ola Ericsson’s La Nativité. Volume 2 in the BIS series, it’s played on the Grönlund organ (1983–1987) of Luleå Cathedral in Sweden. As a performance it faces tough competition from Simon Preston (Decca), Gillian Weir (Collins/Priory) and, most recently, Jean-Pierre Lecaudey (Pavane). I daresay these CDs can be downloaded from the internet*; if not, I’m sure most collectors are happy to supplement their virtual collections with discs where necessary. I’ve chosen to review the 16-bit flac version.
Messiaen’s epic, nine-movement meditation on the birth of Christ must be one of the pinnacles of 20th-century organ music, a densely woven tapestry laced with threads of silver and gold. This emphasis on colour—combined with breathtaking scale—makes the choice of instrument more important than ever; the organs of Aarhus Cathedral (Weir) and Westminster Abbey (Preston) manage to convey both the subtlety and scale of the piece. By contrast the quieter Grönlund speaks in cool, clear tones, ‘La Vierge et l’Enfant’ beautifully detailed but much less radiant than Preston, who is simply unassailable here and in the rarefied music of ‘Les Bergers’. That said, the BIS team capture the high-lying notes of the latter most beautifully.
Whatever one’s view of Messiaen’s very personal universe, few organists bring out the profound sense of rapture that pervades this great work. For all his clarity—perhaps even because of it—Ericsson seems a tad prosaic at times; the static nature of ‘Desseins éternels’ shouldn’t preclude a deep sense of communion, and while I prefer Preston and Lecaudey at this point Ericsson is very persuasive indeed. The requisite glow is there, but rivals—Preston especially—conjure up huge sculptures in sound, startling in their palpability and presence. Perhaps it helps to have an intuitive ‘connection’ with this score, but a spacious acoustic certainly enhances the illusion.
The magisterial music of ‘Le Verbe’ is splendid though, the dark pedals beautifully contrasted with the ecstasy and shimmer from above. Pleasing as he is, Ericsson just lacks that extra dimension—the penetrating gaze, if you will—that distinguishes great Messiaen playing from the merely serviceable. In any event, this movement lacks essential mystery, and while the BIS team have done a fine job the Decca recording—which dates from 1965—is a wonder to behold. But it’s not just about profundity, for the sheer, inexorable surge and spike of this piece needs to be conveyed as well; in that respect Ericsson is outclassed by his peers.
Perhaps this lack of dynamism and contrast explains, to some extent at least, why this performance leaves me feeling curiously detached. And while the weight and wash of ‘Les Enfants de Dieu’ is impressive there’s no big, rolling bass to underpin this music. That said, this is a recording from the early days of digital, and in that context it’s pretty good. Thankfully there’s no glare or hint of digital ‘edge’ in the shimmering haloes of ‘Les Anges’, but listeners hoping for any insights or epiphanies will be sorely disappointed.
The dark, excoriating textures of ‘Jésus accepte la souffrance’ are superbly realised in the Weir, Preston and Lecaudey recordings; it’s much less visceral here. Indeed, one might even be tempted to characterise this as a lightweight performance that, despite external charms, simply doesn’t dig deep enough. So although the rise and fall of ‘Les Mages’ is adroitly done, Preston et al find a transfiguring beauty in these notes that simply eludes the Swede. As for ‘Dieu parmi nous’ it really ought to be a grand summation of all that’s gone before; the Swedish organ makes a mighty noise at the outset, but there’s little here to batter the heart or liberate the soul.
Unfortunately for Ericsson he’s up against formidable competition in a very small, specialised field. Make no mistake, this is a perfectly decent performance; it’s just not a memorable one.