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CD: Crotchet


Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine (1944) [34:04]
Couleurs de la cité céleste (1964) [17:24]
Hymne pour grand orchestre (1932 ) [16:44]
Roger Muraro (piano); Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes-martenot); Hélène Collerette (violin); Catharine Cournot (piano)
Maîtrise de Radio France/Morgan Jourdain
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung
No recording information given.
Experience Classicsonline

Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine is overwhelming; all the more so because it was written in a gloomy winter during the occupation of France. No wonder there was a near riot at its premiere in April 1945. How could liturgical music be so uninhibited? How could Christian music contain so much that was Balinese and “pagan”? Even to modern ears, it’s music of wild abandon, a shorter and sharper precursor of the Turangalîla-symphonie which still shocks many today. But that epitomises Messiaen. He was a revolutionary who paved the way for composers as diverse as Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis and Grisey.
Scored for thirty-six high voices, thirty-two strings, various gamelan-like percussion, piano, violin solo, vibraphone, celesta and ondes-martenot, it holds nothing back. The splendour of God’s presence obliterates all else, and carries us hurtling forward. Myung-Whun Chung, a specialist in this repertoire, gets extremely bright, vivid playing from the orchestra.. If Chung’s approach is muscular and strident, this is by no means a fault. This is strong, heady stuff meant to shine. Messiaen’s intensity stems from the exuberant faith expressed in medieval art and music. In their full glory, cathedrals were vividly painted and gilded, lit by enormously detailed stained glass. Saints were depicted with a kind of glowing ecstasy. There are different approaches to religious music, just as there are different approaches to religion. Myung-Whun Chung is good because he understands where Messiaen’s idiom springs from. The brightness of the string and percussion playing makes a good foil to the ondes-martenot, which adds otherworldly, wavering textures. Hartmann-Claverie’s playing is so good that Muraro’s piano needed to be more assertive to balance it.
The choir though is the glory of this performance. The women sound exceptionally youthful. Messiaen sets the choral part as unison but this simplicity serves to emphasize the vigour and exalted passion. Sometimes choirs sing Messiaen as if they were singing sober, conventional hymns. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t reflect the music. Singing Messiaen needs wilder, almost jazz-like freedom. Full credit to Maîtrise de Radio France and choirmaster Morgan Jourdain for understanding Messiaen’s unique idiom.
Couleurs de la cité céleste is even more visionary. Messiaen himself said “The work does not end, but turns upon itself … like the rose window of a cathedral”. Like Buddhist mandalas and Sanskrit wheels, the symmetry in this piece suggests eternity, development without end. Like The Quartet for the End of Time, and Et Expecto resurrectionem muortuorum, Messiaen draws on The Book of Revelation and its prophecies. Thus the piece creates in sound the idea of The Celestial City shimmering in jewel-coloured transparencies. The scoring is unusual, four trombones reinforced by four trumpets and two horns juxtaposed with a bank of xylophone, xylomarimba and marimba, and a spectacular part for solo piano with extra percussion and wind. Messiaen gives “colour values” to sounds, suggesting that brass might “play red” for example and the winds “play blue”. The sounds are further extended with bird-song which adds another “international” layer to the music expanding it across space as well as time.
Colour is exceptionally important in this work, and Myung-Whun Chung gets good results from his orchestra, but one dreams of a truly first rank ensemble playing this piece. At the 2008 Proms, Sir Simon Rattle achieved wonders with the Berlin Philharmonic, in the Turangalîla-symphonie. That is an orchestra whose ability to achieve colour, transparency and richness of tone is close to perfection. The performance bore no relation to the CBSO recording twenty years before! The bench mark for Couleurs de la cité céleste, is Pierre Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain. Boulez premiered this at the new music festival at Donaueschingen in 1964. Indeed, he chose it for the very anniversary of Messiaen’s centenary, the culmination of the Messiaen retrospective at the South Bank during 2008. Direct comparisons, however, are meaningless. Each interpretation stands on its own terms. Myung-Whun Chung may not have an orchestra of the calibre of Ensemble Intercontemporain or the Berliners, but this is a very strong performance indeed, affirming Chung’s place as one of the significant Messiaen conductors.
After these two sublime works, Hymn pour grande orchestre is something of an anticlimax, for it’s a very early work. Nonetheless, the basics of Messiaen’s later style are already present, and it’s a useful study piece.
Anne Ozorio



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