In concert – David Titterington plays Messiaen’s La Nativité at St John’s Smith Square

David Titterington (organ)

St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 19 December 2019 (lunchtime)

Messiaen La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord or The Birth of the Saviour)

Review by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou (David Titterington), Ben Hogwood (SJSS organ)

Organ recitals can be curiously awkward affairs. The performer will often sit with their back to the audience, playing from a spot in the venue that is nigh on impossible to access. Taking a bow from their stage is fraught with difficulty – in this case a wrong move could lead to an unexpected descent! – and any heroic page turning deeds are done by an unseen accomplice in the dark, on a wing and a prayer (speaking with the cold sweat of experience!)

That said, this was an organ recital of the highest order from David Titterington. The scene was set in St John’s Smith Square, where just around the corner TV crews were covering the state opening of parliament with a security lockdown in place. Here the mood was different but similarly tense, the dank December gloom ensuring the audience were almost in darkness, save for the minimal light of a chandelier.

Yet these circumstances served to draw strong parallels with the very first Nativity. Political unrest, dark times – and in them the arrival of light, acknowledged in Messiaen’s rapturous response to the Biblical tale. Nothing is ever done by halves with this particular French composer, and his response came in the form of a massive, nine-movement organ suite lasting just over an hour. For Messiaen, contemplation is achieved through massive added-note chords, complex rhythms and large structures. Each section in this 1935 work responds to images from the birth of Jesus, and it is one of the composer’s first works to use birdsong melodies and rhythms from India and Ancient Greece.

Taking up the challenge, Titterington – himself the St John’s organ curator – delivered what could only be described as an heroic performance. So much of this music is about creating an atmosphere, and although the elements had combined helpfully it was his choices of registration and phrasing that took us to the next level, securing both a spectacular and reverent performance.

We began with the mottled chords of La vierge et l’enfant (The Virgin and Child) before clipped upper register notes introduced Les bergers (The Shepherds), their tumbling single lines brilliantly executed. Desseins éternels (Eternal designs) had appropriately rich, blanket chords which aided of contemplation and meditation, the subdued lighting helping the cause.

Meanwhile the massive Le verbe (The Word) was a tour de force, with impressive flourishes in the right hand, the structure easily grasped before the probing lines and eventual harmonic stability of Les enfants de Dieu (The Children of God), which ended in mysterious quiet. Titterington then gave superb definition to the complicated treble parts of Les anges (The Angels), with bell-like peals ringing around the church.

The sounds for Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) were brilliantly secured, with a deep growl from the lower reaches of the organ depicting the trials at hand, which were ultimately overcome in brighter sound at the end.

We then contemplated the slowly circling figures of Les mages (The Magi), with a lovely pipe timbre chosen for the second part of the piece, before Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) brought the house down, a glorious finale that reached a blazing conclusion.

When experienced in this way close to Christmas La Nativité comes alive, its colourful musical prose and richer than rich harmonies preparing us for the feasting in store – but also contemplating the quiet wonder of the festival, the still, peaceful voices that even now strive to remain as a crucial part of the Christian calendar.

Further listening

You can hear Messiaen’s cycle on Spotify below, in a recent recording for the King’s College Cambridge label by Richard Gowers: