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Extraordinary Clarity

Naji Hakim begins the
Derby Cathedral summer organ recital series,
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


Derby Cathedral's summer organ recital series have got off to some fairly spectacular starts over the years, but rarely more so than this performance by Naji Hakim, and pre-concert talk by Nigel Simeone of Sheffield University (Derby Cathedral, Derby, UK, 2 July 2008).

This being Messiaen anniversary year, the series is featuring his music, and Nigel Simeone vividly evoked his career as organist at La Trinité, Paris, highlighting the central role improvisation played in his creativity. He included three recordings of Messiaen the improviser in action, remarkable documents in spite of the less than ideal sound quality.

Naji Hakim then produced one of the most compelling recitals I can remember. The centre piece was Messiaen's Messe de la Pentecôte, which produced two overriding impressions. One was the gripping sense of over-arching narrative Hakim brought to even the most apparently disjunctive passages.

The other impression was the extraordinary clarity of his playing. The most intricate textures were elucidated with finely-honed subtlety, while the delicacy and finesse with which he handled the floating chord sequences in the fourth movement were a masterclass in themselves.

That same clarity also illuminated both the opening item, 'Fantaisie de l'Epiphanie' from Tournemire's L'orgue mystique, and Franck's Cantabile that followed.

Hakim's own Le tombeau d'Olivier Messiaen was no mere imitation of his great predecessor. The first movement was notable for its rhythmic drive, less intricate than Messiaen can be but no less sharply profiled. In the second movement, contrasting planes of sound had an almost physical sense of spatial separation. The finale was marked by some dazzlingly virtuoso pedal passages, and moments suggesting that some of Messiaen's birds had taken to singing jazz on the side.

For his concluding improvisation Hakim was handed Vaughan Williams' hymn tune 'Down Ampney'. What followed was an extraordinary meeting of cultures, with a great English composer being inducted into honorary membership of the French organ tradition. The spirits of Saint-Saëns and Vierne, among others, hovered benevolently over the proceedings, and there was even a hint of 1940s and 50s cabaret to spice things up.

Copyright © 7 July 2008 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK


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