Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

This recording will become available through Ludigvanweb

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Éclairs sur l’Au-delà (Illumination of the beyond) (1987-91)
SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden Baden and Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
Recorded in the Konzerthaus, Freiburg 25.02 & 19.09 2002
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.063 [76’29]

This work was commissioned by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for its 150th anniversary. It was to be Messiaen’s last completed major work, and was seen by many to be the summing up of a life in music. Critic Rob Cowan went so far as to describe the piece as "an inspirational monument, and one of the greatest compositions of the post-war period". I would not disagree; the piece encapsulates all Messiaen’s strongest stylistic attributes, and the 11 varied movements make up an orchestral feast that is eminently accessible. Anyone who loves Chronochromie or Turangalila should find much to enjoy in Èclair, though whether this Hänssler disc is the way to get to know it is another matter.

The problem is that there is already some stiff competition. Hot on the heels of an excellent 1993 Jade disc from Antoni Wit and his Polish Radio Orchestra (now familiar regulars for Naxos) came what is probably the finest version we are likely to ever have. Myung-Whun Chung has a special affinity with the music of Messiaen, and his 1994 DG disc with the Bastille Opera Orchestra won rave reviews. Though I am not a stickler for the stopwatch, a glance at the timings of these two versions with Cambreling’s Hänssler disc gets to the heart of the matter. Wit’s comes in at 63 minutes, Chung (who was seen as allowing much more time for the textures to ‘breathe’) at 66 minutes and Cambreling at an astonishing 76 minutes. To put 10 minutes on an already slow-ish performance is provocative, some might say reckless. It certainly causes problems, but should not be dismissed out of hand, as this mostly contemplative score can just about take it.

A case in point is the opening movement, Apparition of Christ in Glory. It is basically a sequence of noble, sonorous chords that move as a slow chorale. They build in intensity, with long pauses between repetitions, and it could be argued that Cambreling’s very leisurely pulse allows the effect of a massive, monolithic Gregorian chant for orchestra to achieve its full impact (Track 1, 0’00). Chung is determined to get a hint of textural variety in the repetitions, and the effect is one of awe and wonder, but Cambreling is also very effective.

He is less successful in other movements. The worst example is probably the fifth, entitled Dwelling in Love, where a warm cushion of string only texture is rather too lovingly handled. This is the longest section anyway, but Cambreling’s 14’48 gives us just a bit too much of a good thing (Track 5, 0’00). Others may, of course, feel it needs just this sort of indulgence in order to summon the composer’s grand and mystical vision, but hearing Chung confirms that a tighter rein is desirable.

Of the other movements, I was impressed by Cambreling’s handling of the difficult ninth movement ‘A Number of Birds in the Tree of Life’, where Messiaen writes his last birdsong piece. Here no fewer than 25 birds are impersonated simultaneously by 18 woodwind instruments, showing us the image of Christ as the Tree of Life and the birds as the souls of the blessed. Cambreling’s excellent wind players conjure up a myriad of colours, and the slow basic speed here works in his favour (Track 9, 0’00). The terrifying power of the sixth movement ‘The Seven Angels with Seven Trumpets’ is not as fully conveyed as in the Chung, who revels in this sort of orchestral dynamism, and the Bastille Orchestra is also a touch more precise in the tricky chords and harmonies. The DG recording also allows a greater space around the instruments, so that what is already a transparent score reveals its colours even more.

It sounds like there is no competition, and it is difficult to recommend Cambreling over Chung, who worked intensively with the composer towards the end. There is no price advantage either, but Cambreling does offer another view on the piece, one that I’m sure he feels is entirely valid. It is not to be dismissed outright, but unless you want two recordings of this wonderful work (not as daft as it sounds) Chung will ultimately offer more rewards,

Tony Haywood


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