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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 1

Paul Kim (piano)
rec. January 2001, Patrych Sound Studios, New York City
CENTAUR CRC 2567/2568/2569 [64:00 + 78:37 + 64:37]

Disc 1

Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58)
i Le chocard des alpes [8:12]
ii Le loriot [9:25]
iii Le merle bleu [13:31]
iv Le traquet stapazin [15:51]
v La chouette hulotte [8:46]
vi L'alouette lulu [7:42]
Disc 2

Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58)
vii La rousserolle effarvatte [30:06]
viii L'alouette calandrelle [5:40]
ix La bouscarle [11:20]
x Le merle de roche [19:12]
xi La buse variable [11:40]
Disc 3

Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58)
xii Le traquet rieur [8:38]
xiii Le courlis cendré [9:57]
Petites esquisses d'oiseaux (1985)
I: Le Rouge-gorge [2:43]
II: Le merle Noir [2:37]
III: Le Rouge-gorge [2:31]
IV: La Grive musicienne [2:39]
V: Le Rouge-gorge [3:08]
VI: L'Alouette des champs [1:59]
La Fauvette des jardins (1970) [29:36]

Volume one of American pianist Paul Kim’s complete recordings of the piano works of Olivier Messiaen covers ‘Birdsong’ as given on the cover, that is to say, those works whose titles are dedicated to birdsong.

Messiaen’s interest in birdsong developed early in life, and throughout his life he undertook the task of transcribing them in the wild – reproducing as far as possible the calls of birds into Western musical notation. The composer himself admitted however, that his methods of creating music from birdsong were conditioned by the limitations of the chromatic scale and the expectations of the ear, so that any literal rendering suggested by the titles of the works here is tempered and filtered through Messiaen’s own personal idiom. The original micro-intervals accomplished by birds are suggested through a variety of techniques, such as widening all other intervals in proportion, when the microtone is taken as its smallest available interval, the semitone. Transposition is also an important factor, and of course the tessitura of the original song is inevitably lower in general than the original birdsong. The habitat, environment and times of day in which birds are heard are also employed in the creation of these pieces.

Catalogue d’oiseaux, when seen as a single work, is the longest and arguably the most technically demanding of Messiaen’s oeuvre for the piano, and Paul Kim’s reading is technically excellent, intelligently informed and poetically sensitive. He can bring out the religious ecstasy without turning it into soggy sentimentalism, is keenly aware of Messiaen’s intentions with regard to atmosphere and context, and is a master of colour and contrast – essential characteristics in this demanding music.

My principal comparison is the excellent cycle recorded by Peter Hill in the late 1980s and early 1990s, originally released on Unicorn, and currently available on the Regis label. The mid-price status of Hill’s set doesn’t disqualify it as an equal to Kim’s, certainly since it was not a budget option for collectors of the original releases. As a complete Messiaen cycle it is still regarded as one of the top choices, although there is plenty of increasingly hot competition these days. My initial impression of Kim’s recording over Hill’s was one of joyful relief. Much as I admire Hill’s playing, the Unicorn recordings always did place one more or less under the piano lid, and concentrated listening could leave you feeling a little battered around the head in some of the pieces. Kim’s piano sound is placed in more of a concert-hall perspective, and you immediately have the feeling you will be able to cope longer with the intensity of the music as a result. My only ongoing bugbear with the Centaur recording is the tuning of one or two notes in the upper range of the piano. These notes - or note - are not so much off tune as rather twangy, meaning a note out of tune with itself – something which has my mate Johan the piano tuner twitching his moustache. Our pet suspicion is that Mr. Kim broke a string during rehearsals – the piano never having encountered his like, nor the demands of Messiaen before, and that the new one was still bedding in during the recording – something which is virtually impossible to keep in check without stopping every 5 minutes for a re-jig. This is a problem which had been cured by the time of the Vol.2 Vingt Regards sessions about which I’ve already raved enough on these pages review. Whatever the reason, this remains a criticism, and while it is a relatively minor issue in the monumental scheme of the thing it is one of those little niggles which constantly call attention to themselves, and which can turn off sensitive ears.

Never mind. Horowitz’s piano also had twangy notes and nobody complained much. As for the Hill/Kim comparison, I increasingly found myself on a course of swings and roundabouts. Hill’s technique is just that little bit tighter on balance, having a solidly reliable quality which, in Messiaen, quickly leads to cries of ‘miraculous’. I have talked to pianists about this staggeringly difficult sounding music, but those up to the challenge admit that, while there are great technical demands, Messiaen in fact had great feeling for pianistic idiom, and some players seem relatively comfortable with even his most extreme sounding writing. I’m not saying it’s easy, just that these days we should have moved beyond incredulity concerning the feat, rather asking what the musician is communicating. In other words, I ultimately stopped seesawing between different versions, and decided to take Paul Kim on his own terms.

Kim has certainly done his homework in this music, and, taking almost any of the pieces from the Catalogue d’oiseaux you can often recall the natural sounds of Messiaen’s birds, or sometimes more importantly the sensations you might associate with hearing them. Each will have his or her favourites, and there are certainly a quite a few birds here I must admit I’ve never heard other than on recordings – either that or without realising what they were. All of these performances are amazing, and one can dip at random and become deeply involved in an instant. Those birds one has experienced in the wild inevitably recall the strongest responses. This is the case, to chilling effect, with La chouette hulotte or Tawny Owl, whose nocturnal cries sometimes penetrated my childhood dreams in the South Wales countryside. I once caught one passing close, in flight, in the beam of my torch. Completely soundless in the air you can imagine how such a bird gained such a ghostly reputation. Continuing the personal references, I could entirely find myself in Le courlis cendré or Curlew, whose distinctive calls and those of other coastal birds such as Terns and Gulls will be familiar to many UK twitchers, and all of which brought me straight to the lapping waters and mud flats of the Waddenzee in Friesland. This is not so much to indicate the qualities of Messiaen’s musical observations and transcriptions, but to point out Paul Kim’s ability to recreate the imagery and associations from which they are derived, surely a quality beyond price.

The Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, being later works, seem to have a gentler, less dramatic sense. Each piece is a gorgeous jewel, often presenting the birds within frames of chorale-like chord progressions. The mad L’Alouette des champs or skylark bears down, hovering invisibly but making you want to laugh or cry with its constant musical tirade, and Kim once again has this sensation in a nutshell. La Fauvette des jardins is an incredible narrative in nature, an entire day described in music like La rousserolle effarvatte of Catalogue d’oiseaux. Where the listener is given a tour of France through the entirety of the Catalogue, this piece presents a single place through which birds fly, alighting and departing, while another of Messiaen’s monumental chorales gathers the whole thing into a coherent and moving whole. Comparison between Peter Hill and Paul Kim in this piece does highlight one aspect in which I marginally prefer Hill’s approach. Coming in at 32:11 to Kim’s 29:36, Hill does take just a little more time with the silences in this music, and has a greater contrast in speed relationships. This gives some aspects of the work greater weight, and while this might over-emphasize some of the bare, two-part developments there is certainly more of a sense of space, against which the birds stand out in greater relief. I do however like Kim’s sense of developing harmony and resolution.

This avian collection is very much a safe recommendation, and in many cases will top the competition. There will probably never be an entirely definitive recording of the Catalogue d’oiseaux. Paul Kim’s abilities are beyond question, and his colours and character have the edge where others might be less ‘on the edge’ at some moments. What I experienced in his Vingt Regards I do find here however, and that is an intelligence at work which projects through the notes, giving us more than mere ‘interpretation’, and projecting an understanding and feeling for the message of the composer which is communicated through the playing. I value this above any kind of virtuosic display, and as a result shall be keeping this version at the heart of my library from now on.

Dominy Clements


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