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:-
1. La Croix
2. Les Laudes
3. Le Baiser au Lépreux
4. L'Ange Voyageur
5. L'Ange Musicien
6. Le Prêche aux Oiseaux
7. Les Stigmates
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
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