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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Saint François d'Assise (1983)
An opera in three acts - eight tableaux
text by composer
José Van Dam (bar) - St Francis
Christiane Eda-Pierre (sop) - L'Ange
Kenneth Riegel (ten) - Le Lépreux
Michel Philippe (bar) - Frère Léon
Georges Gautier (ten) - Frère Massée
Michel Senéchal (ten) - Frère Elie
Jean-Philippe Courtis (bass) - Frère Bernard
Choirs of the Paris Opera/Jean Laforge
Orchestra of Paris Opera/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Radio France 6-9 Dec 1983 Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris
ASSAI 222212 - MU - 752 [61.39+62.19+65.25+40.20]


Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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This is a determinedly French set made available in the UK by Discovery. Gallic confidence permits a translation into English of the ten pages of background notes. The French sung text is there in full but there is no translation.

This work was written at the persistent request and commission of Rolf Liebermann. Messiaen's own notes make clear how significant Liebermann's unrelenting encouragement was. The composer warmed to his subject: St Francis being the saint closest to Jesus and also because of his love for and communication with the birds - a natural line of sympathy to an ornithologist like Messiaen. He wrote the music and poem between 1975 and 1979 and completed the orchestration by 1983. As the composer admits, the libretto has no literary pretensions. He claims to have changed the words to suit the melodic lines and provide vowels in the singably correct places. The musical structure is knit together with a vocabulary of light motifs fully described in the composer's notes as are his very prescriptive expectations for the costumes of the characters. It is all very specific as also is his fixed intention to produce a meditative work rather than one driven by high drama. That said there are dramatic nexuses as in the third scene in the sung words l'heure de la résurrection.

The composer saturated the work with birdsong both in rhythm and melody. The proud songster include: robin, wren, mistle thrush (Umbria), skylark, blackbird, song-thrush, oriole, linnet, kestrel (warning St Francis of the angel's arrival in tableau 5), blue rock thrush, blue-throat, and little and tawny owls.

If it has a weakness across its four hours it is in its tendency towards a uniform moderato tempo. There are explosions of speed but they are not numerous.

The three acts are organised into eight tableaux designed to display various aspects of the effect of God's grace in the character of St Francis. These tableaux or scenes are as follows:-

Act I

1. La Croix

2. Les Laudes

3. Le Baiser au Lépreux

Act II

4. L'Ange Voyageur

5. L'Ange Musicien

6. Le Prêche aux Oiseaux

7. Les Stigmates

Act III

8. La Mort et la Nouvelle Vie

Ozawa directs a defiantly truculent performance in which his focus on the Messiaenic style neither softens nor blurs. The upstart brass expostulations familiar from Turangalila, Couleurs de la cité celeste and Eclairs sur l'au-delà are there as are the liquid ecstatic melodic material - half sigh half groan - extended and swaying in delight. That ecstasy floods Van Dam's singing which is miraculously steady and always beautifully toned and rounded. Diction throughout is excellent. Also you will encounter the gamelan - gong pattering and resonant. Try the end of the first and third tableaux where you can sample the effects of xylorimba, xylophone and marimba.

The composer wondered whether his luxuriant instrumental palette was consonant with the poverty of St Francis. He tackles the issue in the notes where he concludes that St Francis was opulent in sun, moon, stars, sky, clouds, tress, grass, flowers, wind-sound, fire and water. It is that opulence that is reflected in the affluently generous orchestration so familiar from Turangalila and Des Canyons aux Etoiles.

At the start of the second tableau orchestrational effects such as those that play delicately among the stars in Ma Mere l'Oie and Rapsodie Espagnole rustle and chitter. The creaking supernatural world returns again in 6.40 (Tab 1) in Messiaen’s supreme hallmarked orchestration and reappears in tableau 8 at 12.23. It is surely no coincidence that the ecstatically sung word 'joie' from tableau 1 is also the last word of the choir at the very end of the opera.

I have not been able to compare this recording with the recentish (2002) DG set of the Salzburg festival (1998) but it seems probable that a more succulent and even more transparent quality will be found there. The disc is DG 445 176-2 (4CDs). Kent Nagano conducts the Hallé Orchestra with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. José Van Dam continues in masterly form taking on the eponymous role a full fifteen years after the original preserved on Assai. Once again the DG is a live recording. Dawn Upshaw as the angel and John Aler and Tom Krause are among the cast. I am also aware of another recording on the Orfeo label. Shortly after the premiere the short-lived and soon lost Cybélia label issued a set which I recall seeing reviewed but which also I have never heard. I rather suspect that the Cybélia is one and the same as this glorious sounding Assai package.

Despite the tendency to unvaried moderato speeds (the way the composer wrote it) the work succeeds because of its riot of effect, colour, gesture and its impassioned meditative approach. In the latter quality it joins such works as Pfitzner's Palestrina.

With Messiaen you know what you are in for. The hyper-active palette and restive rain-forest textures, wind machines, ecstatic undulations and sighing figures. It is all there and, I think, very powerful. This is not for those who must have Puccinian sunsets and blazing passion though the pained agonised cries of the choir in tableau 7 (Les stigmates) at 14.39 are a surprising and masterly touch. This is an opera of introspection, richly tapestried, but still a landscape of inwardness - a traversal of the topography of the mind and spirit. Admirers of Messiaen will not want to be without this and the excellent sound and performances will repay their dedication in tracking down a copy.

How good it is to hear Ozawa in control and how this music-making reminds many of us in middle age of that conductor's championing of Turangalila during his time with the Toronto Symphony (recorded by RCA and issued with some Roussel works on a BMG double).

This is a live recording (so is the DG and the Orfeo) so you pay an instantly negligible penalty in the rustling of part-turning, chair creaking, shuffling and sporadic coughs.

This work succeeds as an opulent prayer almost an evangelical vehicle reaching out to the listener to accept or reject - it matters not. Subject and composer are at one - no compromises. By the way that last disc is more like 37.19 if you ignore the prolonged and well deserved applause. Those bravos presumably denote the composer's appearance on the stage.

Rob Barnett



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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