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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Historic Recordings:
Visions de l'Amen for two pianos (1943) [43.40]
Quatre Etudes de Rhythme (1951) [15.29]
Yvonne Loriod (piano) (1 Visions)
Olivier Messiaen (piano) (2 Visions and solo in Etudes)
rec. 1949 (Visions); 1951 (Etudes) ADD
FMR RECORDS FMRCD120-L0403 [59.09]


These recordings are assuredly for Messiaen devotees and for those drawn to the French avant-garde of the 1940s. The sound is taken down from 78s made available by the British Library with minimal processing and editing. For those in the know the sound bespeaks more of a Pearl approach than a Dutton or a Naxos.

Tholing some primitive and rough sound especially at the crumbly start of the Amen of Creation is the price of admission to an intense and turbulent performance. Do not expect perfection of ensemble either. Things are hectic and splashy at the start but improve as the work progresses. I am sure that in 1949 Loriod and the composer were still discovering the work they had premiered at the house of Mme Sivade in rue Blanche, Paris on 9 May 1943. Loriod had been the composer's extraordinary piano pupil since 1941. She takes the virtuosic decorative and birdsong segundo line while the composer takes the often profound and oratorical primo.

A couple of impressions: The Amen des anges, des saints du chant des Oiseaux surprised me with its moments of crystalline proto-jazz. After the explosions, dissonance and earthquakes of the earlier movements the hazed drift from sensual to religious ecstasy in Amen du désir creates its own closed and private world. The latter spans an impressively concentrated ten minutes. Its material and mood is closest to the luxurious sensuality of the Turangalila symphony. The finale rushes onwards in a dazzle of bell sounds finding exaltation in the celebration.

The Etudes are untypical Messiaen in two ways. First they are not caught up in the religious-ecstatic experience and second they have a tendency to dry modernistic academicism which is at its most extreme in the two central studies. The Ile de Feu movements that open and close the work reflect the violent rites of Papua New Guinea and can be seen as one of the extremes of France's fascination with the exotics of the départements outre-mers. They are a far cry from the gentleness of Colin McPhee's Gamelan Anklung or the exultant simplicity of Britten's Prince of the Pagodas. The Etudes were premiered on Radio Turin in 1951. This recording was made as part of a UNESCO project.

The case takes the form of a light cardfold with all the notes squeezed onto the card. The font is small; the notes extensive. They are by Malcolm Ball and are agreeably detailed. Full background on French and UK premieres is given together with biographical context and Messiaen's own commentary for the Visions.

Here are two works in authentic readings still having about them the brittle brilliance and rude intensity of creative discovery.

Rob Barnett


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