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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965-1969)
Yvonne Loriod, piano
Arturo Muruzabal, cello
Martine van der Loo, flute
Harmen de Boer, clarinet
Peter Prommel, marimba
Ruud Stotÿn, vibraphone
Henk de Vlieger, xylorimba
Ludwig van Gijsegem, tenor
Reiner Holthaus, baritone
Choir of the BRT, Brussels
Groot Omroepkoor and the Radio Symphonie Orkest, Hilversum/Reinbert de Leeuw
Recorded live, Great Hall, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 29 June 1991. DDD
NAÏVE - DISQUES MONTAIGNE MO 782170 [2CDs: 100:01]

 

One of the great pleasures that I have had since coming aboard as a critic for Musicweb has been the increased opportunity to discover new and interesting music. Many of the discs that I have reviewed have led me to explore the works of off-the-beaten-path composers, and have given me a great deal of satisfaction. This experience, given the number of discs I review, has started to become pleasantly commonplace. It is however, rare, that I find a work unknown to me that completely changes the way I think about a composer or even the art of music itself. Messiaen’s Transfiguration is just such a work.

Messiaen was perhaps one of history’s most deeply religious composers. He created for himself a mystical world of profound spiritualism that affected every aspect of his life and work. In his later years, his music tended to sprawl to ever-greater proportions and many critics accused him of self-indulgence. I must confess that when I opened the booklet for this disc and read the list of forces involved, I was a bit put off, and started to dismiss the work as another out of control venture on the part of a composer gone mad. Then, I listened to the music, and the result can be described as nothing less than a revelation.

Messiaen has carefully chosen passages of scripture to both narrate the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, and to comment upon it, very much in the same way that Bach retold the story of the Passion. The actual account of the event itself is set in very stark and straightforward homophonic style that is clearly patterned on plainsong. The commentary is far more elaborate with fantastically descriptive gestures from the orchestra, which so vividly evoke the miraculous nature of the event itself that the listener cannot help but be swept up into it, regardless of his or her theology.

Let us halt here and describe the tremendous artistic force involved. It is a veritable host of musicians: Choir of more than 100 voices, with tenor and baritone soloists; a small chamber ensemble within the orchestra, made up of seven soloists; and an orchestra of the following: eighteen woodwind players, seventeen brass, sixty-eight strings and six percussionists, each playing several instruments.

One of Messiaen’s great fascinations, perhaps because of his mysticism and a desire to incorporate the work of God in nature into his art, was the music of birds. Much of the accompaniment provided by the orchestra is carefully researched bird song, exactly imitated by the music. In fact, all of the birdcalls used in the orchestration are meticulously documented in the score and notes, and they number well over one hundred. Other works of nature such as mountain passages, streams and forests were also inspirations to the composer as he crafted this magnificent musical landscape.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about both this music and this performance is the utter clarity and intelligibility of both the enormously complex instrumentation, and more importantly, the texts. Every word is understood, and in spite of the immense size of the forces, nothing is ever overblown. The range of color and dynamic shading that Reinbert de Leeuw brings forth is astonishing. And what drama! Believer or not, there is no escaping the wonder of the story, and the ecstasy that the observing disciples must have experienced to have seen Christ illumined on the mountain next to Moses and Elijah.

Pages could be written about the countless details, effects and emotions that are played out in this score. Let me summarize by saying that the Transfiguration is a masterpiece of ecstatic religious conviction, created by a unique and profound musical mind at the height of his powers.

The sheer size of this work sadly makes the cost of mounting a performance prohibitive in the current economy of professional music. This performance consequently is all the more valuable. More than just a must-have recording these discs are a gift from dedicated artists to a music-consuming public that will more than likely pass it by for lack of familiarity and sense of adventure. Allow me to go on record to encourage all lovers of music, regardless of experience or knowledge, to invest in this recording. Opportunities to hear this music live are very rare and to walk away not having experienced it at all, would be a loss indeed.

Kevin Sutton



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