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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Des canyons aux étoiles (1971-1974) [89.44]
Oiseaux Exotiques (1955-1956) [14.07]
Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (1963) [16.56]
Paul Crossley (piano)
Michael Thompson (horn)
James Holland (xylorimba)
David Johnson (glockenspiel)
London Sinfonietta/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Rec. London, 1988?, DDD
SONY ESSENTIAL CLASSICS SB2K87951 [66.49+54.30]

 

The most substantial work here is Des Canyons aux Etoiles with its ten movements spilling across to a second CD filled out with Oiseaux exotiques (1956) and Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963).

Des Canyons is locked, at one level, into images of awe-inspiring natural scenery - the canyons of Arizona and Utah which Messiaen visited to assist him in fulfilling a commission to mark the American Bicentennial.

The piano plays a much greater narrative and structural role than in Turangalila (also in ten movements). Here it is in play most of the time rather like Bax’s Winter Legends in terms of prominence - not style! Five of the movements carry the names of birds (e.g. Oriole, Wood-Thrush, White-Browed Robin, Mockingbird) and birdsong plays a prominent role throughout. There are many remarkable and otherworldly moments including the weird cries alternated with ceremonial majesty and pounding Stravinskianisms in The Cedar Breaks and the Gift of Awe. Listen also to Appel inter-stellaire (CD1 tr.6) where the solo horn confidingly ululates seeming to speak for the native Americans and their relationship between stars and sky. The horn is given what amounts to a punishingly exposed narrative role in much the same territory as the Britten Serenade. Explosions defined in granite and ice reaching upwards to the distant stars and downwards into the natural landscape mesh with birdsong interceding with Heaven. I am surprised, given Messiaen’s spiritual and temporal preoccupations, that he was not inspired to write something related to the prose of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - as in Vol de Nuit or Vent, Sable et Etoiles.

The playing here is of the highest order in this glintingly bejewelled music. One criticism relates to the wind machine which sounds rather puny and is nowhere as realistic as it can sound. There is competition of course from Chung’s French recording on DG 471 617-2. I have not heard the Chung but reportedly his reading is warmer and more expansive than Salonen’s. This comes as no surprise as Salonen’s track-record in modern repertoire has always focused on precision and accurate tonal painting and rhythmic shaping. Nevertheless Salonen directs a feeling performance which I found more engaging than his ice-cold Turangalila (also on Essential Classics).

Wonderful English language notes are provided by Paul Crossley. He is too rash in only one area - where he says that Canyons is the largest work for piano and orchestra ever written. You will, I think, find that Sorabji’s various symphonies for piano and orchestra are longer; mind you when we will ever get to confirm that is anyone’s guess.

The other two works in this set are well worth having and even if you have and prefer the Chung (DG) you are likely to want this bargain price double for the Oiseaux and Couleurs. In both works considerable demands are made on Paul Crossley’s pianism. They seethe with clangorously virile and thudding rhythmic life (listen to the end of Oiseaux Exotiques) after the example of Stravinsky. Gamelan is a presence in all three pieces but is extremely prominent in Couleurs and it shows. Its instrumentation is for piano solo, three clarinets and three xylophones, brass and metallic percussion.

These recordings were originally issued on CBS Masterworks CD44762 in 1989.

Salonen focuses on precision, angularity, accurate tonal painting and rhythmic shaping. He directs a feeling performance of Des Canyons with much more humanity than his Turangalila.

Rob Barnett



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