Robert Matthew-Walker
International Record Review
August 2012

In a society such as ours where it seems that almost every item of news emanating from the Middle East demonstrates man's continuing hostility to man, it is relatively rare, but nonetheless welcome, to encounter examples of man's creativity from that region. These we find in the music and performance skills of the Lebanese-born organist-composer Naji Hakim, for my money one of the finest organists in the world and a composer of no little significance.

Nor is Hakim's output that which merely copies western European procedures, for it is good to be reminded of the universality of music, as we in the UK will experience in the visits from the Middle East of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of lraq later this year. For us, it should be a two-way procedure, and this second volume of organ music by Hakim on the Signum label (the first was reviewed in April 2011), superbly played by the composer and excellently recorded on the rarely heard Stahlhuth-Jann instrument of St Marlin's Church in Dudelange, Luxembourg, is both welcome and valuable.

Its value lies in the fact that society may, in certain circumstances, be becoming more fragmented than is good for it: the fractiousness of science versus religion may have led to creationists attacking Darwinism, or scientists not reading the Bible, but the inescapable fact remains that the first chapter of Genesis outlines the creation of the world in a sequence which is virtually identical to that proposed by Darwinists less than 200 years ago (apart from a fleeting reference, man does not appear until Chapter 2, after the world has been created), the evolutionary nature of Darwinism merely echoing creationism, albeit in more detail.

The results for us are that artists today either hit out, in a typically frustrated manner, when confronted with forces that they appear powerless to comprehend or otherwise master, or seek a kind of spiritual synthesis by turning to what may be considered the eternal verities of religion, and thus experience continuity and stability. As Brahms said of Bruckner: 'His piety is his affair', and the religious inspiration found in composers today as different in background as, say, the Scotsman James MacMillan and the Lebanese Naji Hakim (both in their mid-fifties, of the same generation) may be symptomatic of a deeper need in society, but the results in their music, as with Bruckner, surely demonstrate the validity of their personal choices.

In 1993, Hakim succeeded Messiaen as organist of La Trinite in Paris, and served in that position for 15 years. Like Messiaen, too, Hakim 's music often has a religious emanation, albeit more widely cast than Messiaen's (or MacMillan's) Catholicism, and on this disc we find excellent examples of the nature of Hakim's inspiration which (of course) lies at the heart of his music.

There are six works here, quite varied in expression, all composed during this century. The most appealing aspect of Hakim's music (for me) is its joyous character—not a kind of upmarket 'slappy-happy' view of the world but a positive embrace of life, acknowledging deeper matters but not bogged down by them. In Bach'orama Hakim pays homage to the great Law-giver of Music, a wonderfully wide-ranging but relatively short piece with lighter, not to say humorous, passages, which the master would surely have enjoyed. In great contrast, Jonquilles ('Daffodils') is a set of three pastel-coloured miniatures (less than six minutes overall), perhaps evincing a passing influence from the work of Marcel Dupre, with a magically fading final chord of simple but entrancing inspiration.

The main work in this programme is Mit seinem Geist (2006), variations on the Lutheran chorale Ein'feste Burg ist unser Gott, known to all Christian worshippers, but here treated quite originally, not (for example) as in the powerful use of Luther's theme as we find in Frederick Bridge's 1911 Coronation Te Deum, or in Richard Arnell's organ variations on the same theme, but concentrating upon the spiritual content ('With His Spirit') of the hymn in a series of inspired studies. This fine work succeeds on various levels—it is essentially a profoundly joyous celebration, more feminine than masculine—and although it is by no means easy in its technical demands (the composer, I should have thought, appears to leave matters of detailed registration to the circumstances of the individual player), it should be considered a major contribution to organ literature.

Theotokos ('Mother of God' in Greek) is another important contribution to contemporary organ music, a seven-movement Marian suite based on truly all-embracing yet wide-ranging material which perhaps only someone with Hakim's provenance and adult backgrounds could have brought off with such success. At no time is one aware of a jarring, unconvincing juxtaposition of ethnic material - it is succeeded, by the composer's character, into a coherent unity. This really impressive piece is succeeded by a highly contrasted shorter study: a six-minute Salve Regina is based on the plainsong theme, used as the starting point rather than as an embroidered basis; once again, the composer's positive outlook expresses much in this short and slowly paced work.

Gershwinesca obviously is very different in character: it is a toccata-like piece, written for Wayne Marshall and first heard on the (old) Royal Festival Hall organ in London in 2001. The piece is more than a game of 'spot the tune', although from time to time it is not difficult to identify the sources. We've all heard of Gershwin's love of improvisation at the piano, and I am sure he would have been delighted with this affectionate, clever and intensely musical 12-minute homage which brings this impressive issue to a brilliant conclusion.