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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 – 1992)
Des canyons aux étoiles ... (1971/4)
Roger Muraro (piano); Jean-Jacques Justafé (horn); Francis Petit (xylorimba); Renaud Muzzolini (Glockenspiel)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung
Recorded: Radio France, Salle Olivier Messiaen, July 2001
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 617-2 [47:52 + 44:15]


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Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles ... was written as a commission to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States. It was composed between 1971 and 1974. The US premiere took place in November 1974 whereas the European first performance followed in October 1975. The latter was conducted by Marius Constant who made the first recording for Erato some time later, if my memory serves me well.

As might be expected, Messiaen approached this commission in his own idiosyncratic and inimitable way. This large-scale triptych has nothing to do with any sort of Americana, but is again – first and foremost – a religious meditation inspired by the grand landscapes of the Utah canyons. Messiaen drew on many inspirational sources: religious texts by the philosopher Ernest Hello, Psalms, astronomy and ... birds. The sun-drenched, parched landscapes of Utah also suggested the orchestral layout of the piece: piano, horn, a sizeable wind ensemble, 13 strings and a huge percussion section including a wind machine, a thunder plate and a "geophone" (an instrument devised by Messiaen, in fact a large flat drum filled with lead shot and slowly rotated to make a sound like sifting sand) and almost soloistic parts for xylorimba and glockenspiel. Messiaen also calls for some unusual instrumental playing techniques to achieve some indeterminate sounds, such as trumpet players blowing through the mouth piece or the horn player (in Appel interstellaire) being instructed to play some phrases by halfway raising or depressing the keys.

As is often the case with Messiaen, the music is extraordinarily sophisticated and sometimes remarkably naive. Landscapes or physical sensations are suggested in directly descriptive clichés such as massive block chords and by a whole array of percussive sounds as well as some instrumental techniques already mentioned. Messiaen again exploits the whole of his compositional palette and technique, building movements on complex rhythmic schemes, inserting long cadenzas of bird songs and conjuring-up his unmistakable sound world often achieved by accumulation and juxtaposition rather than development in the traditional symphonic manner. Another remarkable feature of the piece is the use of numerology. There are twelve movements (the apostles and, as suggested by Michael Stegemann, the numerus sonorus representing the Heavenly Jerusalem) arranged in three parts of five, two and five movements respectively. Each part ends with a movement depicting one of the great Utah sights (Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park), whereas the first and third part each includes a big piano cadenza on bird songs. (The number 5 is also noteworthy as it is, according to Stegemann, King David’s Holy Number. The first and third parts have five movements each, movements 3 and 5 are in five symmetrically structured sections, five movements include bird songs and five movements are headed with Biblical texts.) Comments like these are, I am afraid, likely to highlight Messiaen’s fastidious working methods at the expense of the music which, for all its complexity and sophistication, is remarkably direct, quite impressive and often deeply moving as in the beautifully ecstatic movement Les ressuscits et l'toile Aldbaran opening the third part. To a certain extent, Des canyons aux étoiles... is the summation of Messiaen’s musical progress, which later works such as the magnificent Eclairs sur l’au-delà... and Concert à quatre will but consolidate.

The present performance is superb. Myung-Whun Chung has long demonstrated his empathy with Messiaen’s music whereas Roger Muraro is now highly regarded as one of the finest Messiaen interpreters. The recording is simply magnificent and the production up to DG’s best with excellent notes by Paul Griffiths (in English), Harry Halbreich (in French) and Michael Stegemann (in German). The only drawback is the playing time that is a bit on the short side, a pity especially at DG’s full price. (Incidentally, Salonen’s excellent reading on Sony also includes two substantial "fill-ups", i.e. Oiseaux exotiques and Couleurs de la cité céleste.) This is nevertheless a quite remarkable achievement that may be wholeheartedly recommended.

Hubert Culot

 



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