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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Visions de l’Amen (1943): (Amen de la Création [6:10]; Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau [6:09]; Amen de l’Agonie de Jésus [7:43]; Amen du Désir [12:15]; Amen des Anges, des Saints, du chant des oiseaux [7:43]; Amen du Jugement [2:37]; Amen de la Consommation [7:33])
John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas (pianos)
rec. Decca Studio No.3, West Hampstead, London, 29-31 December 1970
EXPLORE EXP 0013 [50:44]

This is my first peek at the brand new Explore label, and I can say that their presentation is as attractive as their catalogue so far. It might be argued that some element of the original LP sleeves might have served better than the variety of photographic material used for the booklet covers, but the overall ‘look’ brings some classic recordings and performances from the last century and dumps them firmly in the lap of this. They demand attention, and deserve it.

This recording was first released on Argo in 1971, and was one of the first recordings of Messiaen’s great cycle of pieces for two pianos. Somewhat amazingly, this is its first international CD release. John Ogdon was an acclaimed interpreter of Messiaen, having already recorded the Vingt Regards for Decca in the same studio in 1969, and of course his duo with Brenda Lucas knew international renown. Having already ditched my copy of the surprisingly naff Erato recording by the Labècque sisters my reference is the excellent recording on Unicorn as the final part of Peter Hill’s complete Messiaen set, companioned by Benjamin Frith.

Starting with the sound quality, this 1970 recording does inevitably have a little tape hiss – something I am always reassured by, showing that the treble hasn’t been filtered out of existence. The studio acoustic is also rather dry, but with Hill and Frith able to revel in St. George’s, Brandon Hill as well as the wonders of digital technology I shouldn’t really be comparing chalk with cheese – if you are interested in this disc it will be for the performance rather than blistering modern sound. In fact, this recording wears its years like a silk cravat, a little old-fashioned, but still very distinguished. Separation between the two pianos is good, without being too wide, and the ensemble between the players blends as one where you would hope and expect.

Visions de l’Amen is one of those elusive works which requires not only superb technical control and a seamless, symbiotic pairing between the players, but also that Catholic sense of mystery and awe with everything between heaven and earth. Where it counts most, Ogdon and Lucas are right up there, transporting us, as the music dictates, to regions beyond. From the opening Amen de la Création the low chords which build in a massive chorale are the vastness of space or the solidity of granite, depending on how you set your jaw – clenched in suspense, or open with awe. The duo pulls no punches with the brutal nature of Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau, and the heartrending drama of the Amen de l’Agonie de Jésus is fully exploited. The central Amen du Désir is most moving – gentle ecstasy subdued by the energetic passions of love, and with 2:30 of coda which should be mounted and on exhibition in the Louvre.

Comparing Ogdon/Lucas and Hill/Frith, I get the sensation that the work is more settled, more thoroughly digested by the more recent pairing. The grand scale is all there, and all of the atmosphere and drama. With every note weighed and thought through Hill and Frith loose a little of the sense of wonder which Ogdon and Lucas seem to create. It’s hard to define, and I do love the Unicorn CD, but take almost any moment and the beauty is in the playing, rather than in the music. In some indefinable way Ogdon and Lucas, even despite some moments of slightly dodgy ensemble, convey Messiaen’s mystic message more effectively. They certainly sound more French, which is perhaps the secret. The ghosts of Berlioz, Dukas, Debussy, Ravel and Satie sit on Messiaen’s shoulder in the final Amen de la Consommation, and they were all crowded into that studio on New Year’s Eve 1970, joyously turning the pages for John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas.

Dominy Clements


The EXPLORE Catalogue

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