By John Rushby-Smith

Among the many innovative composers who marked musical development in the last century, few inhabited sound-worlds as personal as that of Olivier Messiaen.

Exotic instruments, harmonies and rhythms pervade his orchestral music, while much of his piano music is devoted to emulating birdsong. But it is especially in his organ music that he stands out as the giant of his age. A fervent Roman Catholic, he explored every shade of colour offered by the grand organ in order to express his devotion. The works depict the agonies and ecstasies that beset the soul in ways few other composers have matched since the great Passions of J S Bach.

All Messiaen’s organ works pose technical and musical challenges to any organist prepared to take them on, and none more so more than his hour-long, nine-movement musical depiction of the Nativity in La Nativité du Seigneur. Hereford Cathedral’s own Peter Dyke met Messiaen’s challenges brilliantly, capturing the work’s changing moods and spirit with deep understanding and impeccable technique. His finger- and foot-work were agile, his phrasing expressive and immensely subtle. The colours he extracted from Hereford’s wonderful Willis instrument were kaleidoscopic and at all times totally appropriate to the music’s purpose, one moment deep in contemplation, the next depicting a flight of angels, the next resounding in ecstatic splendour. Not only was Peter Dyke’s performance a tour-de-force of the organist’s art but it was also true music making of the highest order.

At most organ recitals in the cathedral CCTV images of the organ console are projected onto a large screen. Someone must have decided that, given the devotional character of Messiaen’s masterpiece, such images might prove distracting, so they were replaced by a slideshow of religious art that looked like a series of blown-up Christmas cards. Far better surely to have been allowed uninterrupted visual contemplation of that other devotional masterpiece: the cathedral itself.