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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Boxed set
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965-1969)
Visions de l’Amen (1943)
Des canyons aux étoiles .. etc.

Experience Classicsonline

CD 1-2
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965-1969)
Yvonne Loriod, (piano)
Arturo Muruzabal, (cello)
Martine van der Loo, (flute)
Harmen de Boer, (clarinet)
Peter Prommel, (marimba)
Ruud Stotÿn, (vibraphone)
Henk de Vlieger, (xylorimba)
Ludwig van Gijsegem, (tenor)
Reiner Holthaus, (baritone)
Choir of the BRT, Brussels; Groot Omroepkoor
Radio Symphonie Orkest, Hilversum/Reinbert de Leeuw
rec. live, Great Hall, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 29 June 1991.
NAÏVE - DISQUES MONTAIGNE MO 782170 [36:44 + 63:13]
CD 3
Visions de l’Amen (1943)
Amen de la Création [7:18]; Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau [5:46]; Amen de l’Agonie de Jésus [7:53]; Amen du Désir [10:54]; Amen des Anges, des Saints, du chant des oiseaux [7:06]; Amen du Jugement [2:43]; Amen de la Consommation [7:08]
Maarten Bon; Reinbert de Leeuw (pianos)
rec. Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht 1988
CD 4

Sept haïkaï (1962) [21:00]
Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963) [16:10]
Un vitrail et des oiseaux (1986) [8:20]
Oiseaux exotiques (1955-56) [14:47]
Yvonne Loriod (piano)
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez
rec. live, 26 November 1988, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris
CD 5-6
Des canyons aux étoiles ... (1971/4)
Marja Bon (piano); Hans Dullaert (horn); Ger de Zeeuw (xylorimba); Wim Vos (glockenspiel); Asko Ensemble; Schönberg Ensemble ; Slagwerkgroep Den Haag/Reinbert de Leeuw
rec. live, 3 October 1990, Vredenburg Utrecht.
NAÏVE - DISQUES MONTAIGNE MO 782142 [47:10 + 44:00]

Montaigne/Naïve has collected the large Messiaen works which were recorded and released on their label between 1988 and 1991, and this 6 CD box commemorates the centenary of his birth. The selection features major pieces which cover a most significant period in Messiaen’s life as a composer. The earliest of these is the Visions de L'Amen for two pianos which was written in 1943, whilst the most recent, Un Vitrail et des Oiseaux for piano and small orchestra comes from 1986.

La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ falls into the middle of this period, seeing its completion in 1969. The vast forces involved and grand scale of the work reflect something of the four year period which it took to create the piece, but the music is pure Messiaen, and one of his greatest achievements. I have to own up to a special affection for this 1991 live recording in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, as I was in the audience. Sat to the right of the choir and actually behind the orchestra, I had an ideal spot to see exactly what was going on, and the atmosphere was electric – reflected in the silence of the audience throughout. Messiaen himself recalled that, when the performance was over, Reinbert de Leeuw "came down from his desk, and he came up to me to embrace me in my seat in the concert hall!!! Where the audience still was applauding for over ten minutes! It was an extraordinary performance ..." I’d actually forgotten that moment, but reading the quote brought it all back. The VARA radio engineers know the Concertgebouw location as well as anyone if not better, and the recording is exceptionally fine. Despite having instruments and musicians spread over a space about the size of two or more tennis courts the perspectives are very natural. Messiaen’s sense of drama and anticipation makes us wait until some softening-up in the penultimate movement, Tota Trinitas apparuit, and then for the truly hair-raisingly gorgeous climax in the final Choral de la Lumière de Gloire. On the strength of it I bought the old analogue Antal Dorati/Decca recording almost immediately afterwards. This seems to be unavailable now which is a shame, but this performance and recording knocks it squarely into a cocked hat on all fronts. Principal competition for this recording must now be from Myung-Whun Chung on DG – which seems to be out of print at the moment, but for sheer live power and emotional involvement I’ll stick with De Leeuw; it made me cry all over again.

Throughout his life Messiaen maintained a strong devotion to Catholicism, and the Visions de L’Amen for two pianos is a strong representation of his visionary response to this faith. I have the good fortune to have discovered the wonderful 1970 recording with John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas, but have to admit to being highly impressed by this spectacular performance by Reinbert de Leeuw and Maarten Bon. De Leeuw is a noted pianist, and Bon is also known for his various contributions to the multi-piano repertoire, including a four piano transcription of Stravinsky’s ‘La Sacre du Printemps’. These are performances of masculine power in, for instance, the Amen of the Stars, and poetic magic in the Amen of desire, and, short of an out-of tune string in the upper register of the left piano which pops out briefly somewhere near the beginning of Amen of the Stars there are no real technical problems at all. This is one of those pieces which, once you have become hooked, will have you looking at all the other desirable versions around. If there were no others available, I would however be perfectly happy with this recording. The Vredenburg acoustic is suitably vast without being churchily resonant, and both players are genuinely in tune with the spirit of the work. If you should happen to discover this work for the first time through this set and want to explore further then Steve Osbourne and Martin Roscoe on Hyperion are high on the recommended list, and Messiaen also recorded the work in 1962. There is also Paul Kim’s remarkable pairing with his son Matthew. You may sense I am gently leading you beyond the present recording, which is true to a certain extent – you may find this pair’s sheer power and violence sometimes goes beyond even that of the Church and its Creator.

Disc 3 of this set is a live recording of a concert given for Messiaen’s 80th Birthday. While this occasion has its own historical value, even the incomparable musicianship of the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Yvonne Loriod’s incredible pianism can’t entirely disguise plenty of ambient audience noises, some well-timed coughs and a fairly ‘difficult’ theatre acoustic. Never mind: what we do have is the premiere performance of Un vitrail et des oiseaux, which as its name reveals is deeply concerned with birdsong for its musical material. Unfortunately, the booklet is somewhat partisan in having the individual notes on all the pieces in French only, but the riot of colours from the instruments, written with Messiaen’s unique way with counterpoint, are fairly self-explanatory, assuming you are already familiar with his work. Both Sept haïkaï and the more famous Oiseaux exotiques are similarly avian in content. Sept Haїkaї is subtitled "Japanese sketches for piano and small orchestra" and is the composer’s musical response to the landscape and birds of Japan, as well as the order and ceremony that defines that country’s culture. While the title Couleurs de la cité céleste only thinly hides a content which also involves a great deal of birdsong, the composer’s Christian faith is also represented in plain-chant alleluias, and going beyond Western ideas through the use of Hindu rhythms. This is a work of fascinating variety, and comes through as one of the best in the programme.

I had the good fortune to be studying at the Royal Academy of Music when their Messiaen Festival was held in 1987. Most of the top flautists had already left or were gigging for fat salaries at that time, so several of them resorted to me as a substitute. I’ve rarely had such a good time before or since, among other things playing piccolo in Oiseaux exotiques and the final work of this set, the massive Des Canyons aux Etoiles. We had Yvonne Loriod playing the piano part, Messiaen in the audience bundled in scarves and overcoat, and the marvelous John Carewe as conductor. I’ll never forget during one of the rehearsals, Messiaen getting up and gently describing the melodic shapes of one of the birds in terms not only of its song, but in the way it flew over the water. Melanie Daiken did her best with on the spot translations, but by the sound of his voice and the gentle movement of his hands we all immediately knew what he wanted to express.

Knowing Des Canyons aux Etoiles from the inside helps, but this is one of those works which seems to love being recorded. The music has such a breadth of expression and such magical atmosphere that it is almost impossible not to transfer much of that impression of it onto disc, assuming the performance is a good one. Reinbert de Leeuw’s here is very good indeed, and could hardly fail with such a stellar lineup of soloists and ensembles, all of whom are entirely in tune with 20th century music and Messiaen in particular. I’ve known the Esa-Pekka Salonen recording for CBS as was for as long as it’s been out, and this is still very good. It doesn’t beat Myung-Whun Chung on DG however. Between Chung and De Leeuw there are a few aspects to consider. The piano is considerably closer in the balance with De Leeuw, giving the instrument more of a ‘concerto’ perspective rather than as a member of the orchestra as a whole. The De Leeuw recording is more direct and visceral in general. The recording sounds more multi-miked, with brass, percussion, strings et al right up and bold-as. The wind machine is also given a more hefty cranking on the present disc, and the dark, menacing noises in Cedar Breaks et le Don de crainte are mad, almost to the point of being comic – but it does all work somehow. In all of these things Chung is more refined: low brass notes sound more like organ pedal notes than deep growly farts, and the Cedar Breaks noises are less dramatic, more apologetic to start with, and then spooky – in a cheesy ghost tunnel kind of way, it’s certainly one of Messiaen’s stranger movements. As a recording to live with on a permanent basis Chung might have the edge, but I would say De Leeuw most certainly has a special place for his slippers in my CD cupboard. Chung’s percussion rings on that little bit longer, his instruments blend more elegantly and his edges are less rough hewn, but I admire the craggy energy from all of De Leeuw’s players, Hans Dullaert the horn player in particular.

As a set, this has to be considered a real bargain – especially when you consider it is priced at around six discs for the price of two. None of the performances will disappoint. Many have an historical, almost legendary feel to them – the Transfiguration in particular, which is worth the price of the box on its own, but also the 80th Birthday concert which has its own unique value despite all the blemishes. You can also find these pieces flawlessly directed by Boulez in a nice safe DG studio. The Visions de l’Amen may not be an absolute first choice, but has very many convincing qualities and is a fine recording and performance in its own right. The Canyons too has rivals, but such knowledge is unlikely to disturb you unless you have comparisons to hand, and I would suggest there won’t be many which will have the beating of the recording from this set. Fans of Messiaen need not hesitate to join Naïve Montaigne in celebrating some of the finest performances of one of the best composers the 20th century had to offer. To those who are exploring and wish to discover his work from a single, budget-priced source – I envy you, enjoy!

Dominy Clements



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