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Autour de Messiaen
Michèle REVERDY (b.1943)
Concerto pour Orchestre (1994) [22:09]
Tristan MURAIL (b.1947)
Attracteurs étranges (1992) [11:03]
Qigang CHEN (b.1955)
Instants d'un opéra de Pékin (2000) [10:06]
Gilles TREMBLAY (b.1932)
Croissant, for String Quartet (2001) [19:32]
Jean-Michelle Fonteneau (cello Murail)
Mack McCray (Piano Chen)
San Francisco Conservatory New Music Ensemble/Ensemble Parallèle/Nicole Paiement
rec. November 2002, University of California, Santa Cruz Recital Hall
MSR CLASSICS MS 1151 [62:51]
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The only trouble with recordings with this kind of title, is that one immediately starts listening for echoes of the great teacher, to whom all of these composers went as students at one time or another. There are indeed a very few slight references on which one can draw, but in general the one thing each composer has in common is a carefully refined approach, idiomatically sympathetic to the instruments and with only occasional forays into the ‘avant-garde’ (or ‘squeaky gate’) – as if such a thing could still be said to exist.

One of the most memorable and substantial works on this disc is Michèle Reverdy’s Concerto pour Orchestre. Beginning and ending quietly with flute solos, the piece is constructed around the idea of "[giving] everyone a voice", and indeed there is some delightfully contrapuntal wind writing, percussion both delicately colourful and punchily rhythmic, chamber-like strings: this is surely highly rewarding music to perform, let alone to experience as an audience. Ideas and sequences are presented, developing and weaving into textures of ever-increasing complexity. Rhythmic ostinato takes over in a central section around which variations build to a climax which is a little like an accelerated moment from ‘Oiseaux exotiques’. This climax could well be the end of the piece, but there are another ten minutes in which another organic movement is allowed to grow out of some gorgeous low percussion sounds and extended bass clarinet and bass flute conversations. The piece is somehow dark without being at all gloomy, and I found it a fascinating musical journey.

Conductor Nicole Paiement has been the Artistic Director of Ensemble Parallèle since 1993. Ensemble Parallèle focuses on the performance and recording of lesser-known works of the 20th century and the music of today, and with this professional ensemble Paiement has recorded and performed many world premières. Since 1999, Paiement has also been the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Conservatory New Music Ensemble, whose members reinforce Ensemble Parallèle in the Concerto.

Tristan Murail is a name some will have seen as Ondes Martinot player in many works by his teacher, Olivier Messiaen. He was greatly influenced by Messiaen’s research into resonance and instrumental timbre, and Attracteurs étranges is a work for cello solo which explores the instruments range through "spirals that always seem to return to one or several identical points, but in fact always follow differing, warped or diverted trajectories." The title (and quote) refer to the fractal patterns to which Murail applies poetical analogy to create an interesting, if sometimes angular and fragmentary study.

Qigang Chen was born in Shanhai in 1955 and moved to Paris in 1984 to study with Messiaen. Instants d'un opéra de Pékin is a piano solo written for the Messiaen Contest in Paris in 2000. Chen uses famous instrumental extracts from the Beijing Opera, which, treated to some ‘Messiaen-style’ modulations can end up sounding a little like Debussy’s more exotic piano works. After a mystic opening, a more openly rhythmic character introduces a ‘theme and variations.’ The resulting virtuoso elements turn up some fun, if rather eclectic moments, superbly performed by multiple-prizewinning pianist Mick McCray.

The title Croissant of Gilles Tremblay’s string quartet, derives from ‘croître’ – to grow, and not a butter-rich breakfast delicacy. I think I would have preferred fresh-baked treats to this ‘evolution of one main idea’, but the piece is not without its merits. Wandering glissandi and a feeling of directionless see-sawing don’t however really hit the spot for me, and I longed for some moments of reflection and relief from that rather empty ‘main idea’. Towards the end of the work there are some impressive unisono effects, and a brief, almost invisible quote from the second movement of Mozart’s K458 quartet which grows out of a nicely crafted coda.

This is an interesting collection of pieces, showing how many and varied are some of the voices which have emerged from the Parisian ferment which orbited one of the greatest names of 20th century music. The recording is good, the large ensemble sounding dry but in an acoustic which is responsive to the solo works and generally appropriate to such repertoire. All of the performances have been carefully prepared and professionally performed, and anyone interested in exploring some new and engaging repertoire will find much to enjoy in this recording.

Dominy Clements


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