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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Visions de l’Amen (1943)
Alexandre Rabinovitch; Martha Argerich (pianos)
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, December 1989. DDD
EMI CLASSICS CDC 7540502 [47:21]

This is another welcome, and important, exhumation from the EMI catalogue courtesy of ArkivMusic. It is welcome in the sense that it is surely one of the finest recordings of this seminal work and important in that is restores one of Argerich’s rare performances of twentieth century music.

Visions de l’Amen (1943) was the first substantial composition of the ‘mature’ Messiaen. Indeed it serves not only as a summation of his compositional developments thus far, but also provides an indicator of the advances that would follow.  This was the first work by Messiaen to be inspired by Yvonne Loriod, whose ‘transcendental virtuosity’ allowed the composer to explore new possibilities of piano writing. It was written for both himself and Loriod; the two-piano medium, whilst giving the composer scope to be more dramatic than ever before, also allowed him to create two uniquely different piano parts. In general terms he entrusted to the first piano the more complex rhythmic elements, the chord clusters and the most dextrously challenging passages whilst the second piano is given the majority of the melodic elements, the recurring themes and the emotional content.

In other words, neither part is subordinate to the other; it is simply that each part has its own unique challenges - and, this being Messiaen, those challenges are of a Herculean nature. This should assuage any fears that by tackling the second piano part Argerich is in any way taking the ‘back seat’. In fact, Messiaen composed that part for himself, so eager was he to have control of the emotional aspects of the work.

Loriod made such an impression upon the composer that he subsequently composed countless works for her, and she eventually became his wife. However, she was not the only inspiration for the Visions. Whilst many of Messiaen’s previous works had taken there inspiration from biblical sources, Visions is heavily influenced by theological concerns. It is difficult not to see this shift as being in some way connected to Loriod; perhaps Messiaen was looking not only at religious ecstasy but to a more earthy, human emotion - a course that would reach its culmination in the joyous love poem Turangalila.

Musically speaking, the Visions represent significant advances in his piano writing. Whilst he had composed for the instrument before, the two-piano medium offered a far more ‘orchestral’ palette of colours and textures, closer to his beloved organ. This was also the first time that he began to use recurring, cyclic themes over vast structures. These, of course, are only the tip of the iceberg when describing the great array of technical devices which contribute to Messiaen’s musical language, but should give some indication as to the huge demands that a work such of this make on its performers.

Argerich and Rabinovitch have, of course, conquered entirely the technical demands of the work. We expect that. The most important consideration is whether or not the work convinces; it does. With this duo you really do get a sense of awe and wonder, of ecstasy and timelessness. And yes, they do handle the different colours and textures so successfully that it does start to resemble some vast, glittering edifice. You could really get lost in their sound. Indeed, if you experience synesthesia in the way that the composer did: with different sounds inducing the sensation of different colours, you’ll probably find listening to this performance somewhat akin to a narcotic experience.

Of course, if you want complete authority, then Messiaen’s own 1949 recording with Loriod is now available (Future Music Records FMRCD120) but Rabinovitch and Argerich make a superb modern recommendation. The excellent booklet notes are mostly by the composer himself, providing an approachable and informative commentary on the different movements. EMI’s sound is good, though not quite state of the art. This being a straight re-pressing of the original 1990 release, the running time is at a rather short 48 minutes; however, such is the density and power of the music that you’ll probably still be exhausted by the experience.

Owen E. Walton 



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