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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
CD 1
Turangalīla-Symphonie (1947-49) (Movements I-VIII) [67 :43]
CD 2
Turangalīla-Symphonie (Movements IX-X) [12:37]
Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (1941) [46:13]
Thème et Variations (1932) [12:18]
Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot), Michel Béroff (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (conductor) (Turangalila)
Wolfgang Meyer (clarinet), Christoph Poppen (violin), Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (cello),
Yvonne Loriod (piano) (Quatuor)
Christoph Poppen (violin), Yvonne Loriod (piano) (Variations)
rec. 11-13 July 1977, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Turangalila); 19-21 November 1990, Église Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris.
EMI CLASSICS 20TH CENTURY CLASSICS 2068672 [67:43 + 71:32]
Experience Classicsonline


My introduction to Messiaen’s Turangalīla-Symphonie came on a youthful visit to London, when I was persuaded that it would be more interesting for me than some other box set I was lingering over - I think one of the von Karajan Bruckners - at one of the discount record shops. This was the 1968 RCA recording with Seiji Ozawa, and like many a strong first impression of this work, it was the one which shook my world. The CD release for this still comes highly recommended, certainly as it was the first commercially available recording made, but still on its own terms as a force to be reckoned with.

Since then I’ve dabbled. Another RCA set with Marek Janowski and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France from 1993 has seen the light of day more than once, but never seemed quite so involving as Ozawa. Top choice on my shelves has more recently been that of the BBC Philharmonic with Yan Pascal Tortelier on Chandos. The sound quality and white-hot playing on this is hard to beat. My mate Graham of Leeds who owns a signed LP copy of Previn’s Turangalīla has long been trying to convince me of the qualities in this recording. When it seemed likely I might have this new re-release to review he very kindly sent me his copy of the Myung-Whun Chung Deutsche Grammophon CD from 1991, warning me that I would find the Previn much more fun. I have been a great fan of Chung’s Bastille Messiaen recordings, but despite this being praised in many quarters and by the composer himself, I find it hard to see this as definitive. While it has many strong qualities, the sheer impact seems dulled somehow by a rather un-dynamic recording.

Delighted to have received this new incarnation of the LSO Previn recording, its sheer mass and brilliance blew my socks off instantly. EMI are certainly confident about the qualities of the recording, having previously released it as an Audio DVD, that medium whose extra-revealing qualities are an analytical test beloved of some audiophiles. Some of you may also be familiar with this recording as an earlier twofer, which included a brace of Poulenc’s concertos. The logic of coupling this incredible version with the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps and Thème et Variations seems to make more sense, and there is certainly no change in absolute quality between the earlier analogue taping of the Symphonie and the later digital chamber works. If you didn’t know that this Turangalīla-Symphonie was analogue, I would challenge all comers to call it inferior in almost any respect to any of the versions I have mentioned previously. There is minor tape hiss in the quieter movements, but aside from that this remains a recording of demonstration quality. For a start, the dynamic range is ridiculously wide, with truly visceral bass drum thwacks and low piano sound. The Abbey Road acoustic seems to work with the sheer volume of the orchestra, containing and focusing the sound in what is made to sound an ideal environment. The synergy between the LSO and André Previn in this period is a matter of record, and so it is less than surprising that the orchestra plays out of its collective skin. The central movements such as the beautiful Jardin du sommeil d’amour are superbly paced, expressive, and in this recording having the ability to make time stand still for their duration. Michel Béroff is pretty much unsurpassed as piano soloist, Yvonne Loriod excepted of course.

If I have any criticisms they are small ones. The balance of the cymbals is rather forward, and can be a bit hard on the ears in a movement like Chant d’amour I, but at least they are full-blooded and clear unlike the rather recessed pots and pans with Chung on DG. This is a comparative, rather subjective comment, and I know others who say they’ve never remarked on this, so you can rest assured it’s not a huge issue. There is the odd occasion when one feels the music is still in a process of evolution. The ‘hocketing’ instruments in Turangalila II I’ve heard more evenly played, and the penultimate movement, Turangalila III, has some difficult layering and effects, and the direction of the music seems to waver just a little with the solo strings from 2:20. The sonic sparkle of the effects later on is really alive however, despite a more measured tempo than some. Consistently slower tempi than, say, Yan Pascal Tortelier, is the reason this Turangalila spreads onto two discs rather than one, but the sense of glorious detail and sheer power in the music mean that it never seems sluggish. The strings are still very much ‘on the edge’ in the technical minefield which is the Joie du sang des étoiles, and longer timings are in any case no indication of the sheer monumental momentum and power generated on this recording.

Having both the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps and the Thème et Variations with Yvonne Loriod at the piano turns this Messiaen release into a must-have, if these are recordings you have yet to acquire. They have appeared before, but combining them in this coupling makes for an almost perfect total immersion experience into the younger Messiaen’s sound-world. This quartet pulls no punches with the Quatuor. The slow, lyrical movements are tender, but there always seems to be a hint of passion and anger behind the notes, rather than the more ethereal rendering I seem to recall from Tashi (RCA 1976), which I still have on LP somewhere. Timings are a bit more compact than with another version I have as a reference, that of Reinbert de Leeuw etc. on Philips from 1982, though De Leeuw does have a tendency to stretch things whenever the opportunity presents itself. The same is true of another version which I have as a review sample, that of Janice Weber et al on Ongaku Records, which comes up with even longer timings in some movements – an interpretation which is however strongly based on the ‘urtext’ of the markings in the score. This version also has plenty of contrast from the more violent to the eternally timeless, but Loriod and her distinguished team attack the notes like musicians possessed at times. This is a classic recording, and one supervised by the composer, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Christoph Poppen is now one of ECM’s fine artists, Manuel Fischer-Dieskau is one of Dietrich’s three sons, and Wolfgang Meyer also has a fine pedigree as a recording and performing artist.

With the sorrowful extended final movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps beautifully rendered by Poppen and Loriod still ringing in our ears, this duo takes us through the Thème et Variations which Messiaen wrote for his first wife, violinist Claire Delbos. Strangely, the booklet notes make no mention of this piece, but do include Le merle noir, which must be some kind of editorial oversight.  The final movement is also listed as Très modéré when it should be Très lent. The Thème et Variations is a soulful, sometimes almost sentimental work in a similar tonal idiom to the Préludes and the earlier organ works, but also following the bravura concert tradition which sees this work appear frequently in chamber music recitals. The aforementioned Très lent movement foreshadows the kind of timeless beauty in some of the slow movements of Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, so as a ‘filler’ it is very worthwhile.

The conclusion is, if you don’t have these pieces, or even these versions of these pieces; now is very much the time to add them to your shelves. Does it replace the Tortelier/Chandos recording? Maybe, maybe not; but add in the other two pieces and I know which one I’ll be taking on holiday. This well filled bargain double CD has some of the best Messiaen ever recorded, and should be on everyone’s shortlist.

Dominy Clements


 


 




 


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