Messiaen on Speed (or Dieu parmi nous – what not to do)

by 5:4

Being Christmas Day, organists up and down the land will be putting Messiaen‘s Dieu parmi nous through its paces. In the UK, it’s become practically as ubiquitous as Handel’s Messiah, so with the wonderful and timeless “Messiah on Crack” in mind, i offer you what we might perhaps call “Messiaen on Speed”.

At the 2001 Proms, Wayne Marshall gave an organ recital that included the last two movements of La Nativité. Whether Marshall was drunk, over-excited, showing off, taking the piss, eager to get home early, or some wild combination of all the above i have no idea, but the result rather boggles the mind. Marshall takes most of the music at a tempo so fast as to be way beyond ridiculous, his fingers literally spilling over the keys—wrong notes a go-go—sounding like an organ transcription of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s more frantic studies. Inevitably, all the detail of Messiaen’s material is completely lost, and the closing toccata simply has to be heard to be believed. Marshall turns Messiaen’s coruscating hymn of joy into a excruciating but hilarious exercise in meaningless velocity. Oh, and the organ’s out of tune too.


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Wait! What? DId I just hear that? It has to be the WORST version I've ever heard…but it certainly is the fastest at 6:34. I have a recording of Kevin Bowyer knocking it out in 7:12—a touch fast for my taste but he articulates it beautifully. At t'other end of the spectrum, Timothy Byram-Wigfield manages to stretch it out for a full 10 minutes. My favourite version has to be Olivier Latry giving it large on the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument at Notre-Dame—five full stops en-chamade? Mental!

There's an excellent version of Latry playing DPN at the Esztergom Cathedral In Hungary on YouTube:

Even though the organ is incomplete (only 50 stops out of 147) it's still an incredible instrument: the mixtures have to be heard to be believed.

The most bizarre version I've come across is this:

DPN played on an accordion? Astonishing virtuosity!

To my mind, Messiaen is the most important composer of the 20th century and DPN is my Number 1 favourite piece of all time. To hear it played so badly is an affront to The Master. I shall now have to cleanse my ears out with a decent version. Hmm, I think I'll give Naji Hakim's intrepretation a bash…

Chas =:~)

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