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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Orchestral and Chamber Works and Song-Cycles

CD 1: Turangalîla-symphonie (1948)
CD 2: L’Ascension (1933); Cinq Rechants (1948); Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964); La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1969)
CD 3: La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (cont.)
CD 4: Poèmes pour mi (1937); Quartet for the End of Time (1941)
CD 5: Chants de terre et de ciel (1938); Harawi (1945)
CD 6: Poèmes pour mi (1936); Rondeau (1943); Visions de l’Amen (1943)
  CD 1: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano); Takashi Harada (ondes martenot)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. Amsterdam, March 1992
CD 2: London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. London, 1970
John Alldis Choir
rec. London, 1968
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Amsterdam, 1969
CD 3: Yvonne Loriod (piano); Janos Starker (cello)
Westminster Symphonic Choir
National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC/Antal Dorati
rec. Washington, 1972
CD 4: Felicity Palmer (soprano); London Symphony Orchestra/ Pierre Boulez
rec. London, 1972,
Joshua Bell (violin); Michael Collins (clarinet); Steven Isserlis (cello); Olli Mustonen (piano)
rec. London, 1996
CD 5-6: Noelle Baker (soprano); Robert Sherlaw Johnson (piano)
rec. London, 1968 and 1971
Paul Crossley (piano)
rec. 1974
John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas (pianos)
rec. London, 1971
 DECCA 478 0352 [6 CDs: 75:57 + 76:01 + 75:28 + 73:03 + 77:01 + 80:57]
Experience Classicsonline


One of the fashionable internet myths at the moment is that Messiaen is somehow “suited to boxed sets”. Actually, it’s simple commercial sense. Sets are a convenient way for people coming new to the composer to get a large number of recordings at a relatively low price, even if the selection may be very uneven. Significantly, the flood of boxed sets of Messiaen’s many works has only come onto the market towards the end of his centenary year, after many will have bought the recordings separately at great cost.

Easily the top recommendation among boxed sets is the Deutsche-Grammophon complete series, all the music, specialist performers and some of the finest performances available. It is superlative value for money: the recording of the opera, Saint François d’Assise, bought on its own would set you back about a third of the cost of the whole 32 CD set. It is a genuine tribute to the composer, much more than a marketing opportunity. It’s an investment but one which will yield for years to come. It is the touchstone, the top recommendation.

So why listen to other sets? Each has its own “unique selling point” some perhaps more obvious than others. This set represents what Decca recorded over the years, so it’s not specially cohesive in artistic terms, but is interesting as an insight into how Messiaen was perceived by major studios in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This happenstance means that there’s a bias towards early work at the expense of the truly innovative, like Chronochromie and Sept Haïkaï

Look at who the performers are - Stokowski, Haitink, and Dorati – not normally associated with Messiaen and his very unusual idiom. This in itself is interesting as it shows how adventurous recording companies could be in those days. Stokowski was too good an artist not to be moved by good new repertoire. He pioneered Charles Ives, at a time when Ives’ music was considered unplayable because it was too advanced. The orchestra needed to be trained, bar by bar. So it’s no surprise that L’Ascension, here in its orchestral version, should be rather good. Admittedly it’s very early Messiaen, so is not as distinctive as his later work. Stokowski appreciates the lush, almost Romantic lyricism, getting a warm wash of strings that reflects, perhaps, other music of the period. The relatively weak third movement, discarded by the composer for the organ version written only a year later, sounds convincing in Stokowski’s hands.

Much less successful is Bernard Haitink’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The absence of conventional symphonic form seems to leave Haitink adrift. This is an apocalyptic piece in which the earth is ripped asunder in cataclysm. Instead we hear formless sequences, smoothed out and timorous. The astonishing riptide of brass and winds here is deflated, its purpose missed.

The quirky, angular theme in the third movement may be birdsong but it’s not meant to be decorative. Whoever suggested this piece to Haitink did him and the composer no favours.

Antal Dorati is far more attuned to the composer’s idiom, in this early La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ. This is a massive piece, with seven instrumental soloists, a huge choir and huge orchestra. Just keeping it afloat is an achievement. Considering that this recording was made just three years after the work was completed, it’s a credit to Dorati, who seems totally at ease with Messiaen’s astounding vision. Dorati sculpts the huge blocks of sound like giant ostinatos, and lets the “sunburst” chords shine audaciously. The pianist here is Yvonne Loriod, who is stunningly clear and assertive. Although the soloists shine, mention should also be made of the orchestral percussion. More unusually, the choir captures the surreal, ecstatic mood of the piece, while retaining the spirit of Latin High Mass. The 12th Septénaire, Terribilis est locus iste is truly spectacular. Choir and orchestra produce dizzying waves of sound like blazing, blinding light. This performance is so fresh and uncompromising it bears comparison with the finest modern interpretations, such as Kent Nagano’s ecstatic version at the South Bank, part of the excellent South Bank series (see review). Nagano incidentally gave the US premiere of this piece – did he and Dorati confer? They were both in contact with Messiaen himself. This is a performance to cherish.

Since this is a Decca set, the version of Turangalîla-symphonie here is by Decca stalwarts, Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Chailly’s orchestra has the edge technically on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra whose recording with Simon Rattle is well regarded by many, so there’s more textural transparency and colour here. It’s not easy, though, getting an orchestra with firm ideas about tradition to lose their inhibitions and “swing” the loose-limbed way this music needs. That’s why Rattle’s Turangalîla with the Berlin Philharmonic was so brilliant. Yet Chailly inspired the Concertgebouw with Edgard Varèse, hardly a “traditional” composer. Their recording of Varèse’s complete works is so good that it’s a benchmark. This recording of Messiaen isn’t quite so idiomatic.

That said, this isn’t by any means a bad performance, it’s just that there’s a lot of competition. Despite its popularity, Turangalîla does have weaknesses and ends a phase in the composer’s development. Messiaen goes on to major breakthroughs later, which are still not fully appreciated because Turangalîla dominates what many assume is all he is. Thus it has to be approached with purpose and discipline. Nagano and Salonen emphasize the structure and movement. Rattle, with the Berliners, emphasizes the transparent lucidity. It benefits from interpretations based on knowledge of the whole arc of the composer’s work.

Similarly, the version on this set isn’t the best recording of Poèmes pour mi. Boulez’s other recording, with Françoise Pollet and the Cleveland Orchestra is more vibrant. For all her virtues Felicity Palmer can’t match Pollet.

Messiaen said of Poèmes pour mi, “Study this cycle and you’ll understand my work”. It’s true, for it captures in embryo the spirit of his later work. It’s surprising how rarely the work has been recorded. This set also offers the piano version, with Noelle Barker and Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen’s student, friend and one of the first British champions of his music. This recording is valuable for historic reasons, but Sherlaw Johnson was also a very good pianist, as this sensitive performance demonstrates. He and Noelle Barker also give a good account of Harawi. This important cycle is in many ways the high point of the phase that ends in Turangalîla, but eclipsed by the latter’s popularity. Harawi is tighter, more innovative and avoids excess.

Unfortunately, there are few recordings of Harawi because it’s difficult and requires unusual character to carry off. Although Barker is technically good, she doesn’t quite have the personality the piece needs. Nonetheless, Sherlaw Johnson’s playing is superb, limpid and savage by turns. Everyone needs to have at least heard Sherlaw Johnson, who was behind so much British interest in the composer. This set also includes short contributions from John Ogdon, Paul Crossley and Brenda Lucas, linking to the other Decca set of Messiaen piano and organ works (Decca 478 0353 7 CDs).

Then, at the end of this collection of historic items, Decca includes a relatively modern performance. This Quartet for the End of Time is so refreshing that it lifts the whole set to new heights. Again we have some of the finest British musicians, preserved forever while they are relatively young. Isserlis, Collins, Bell (token Brit) and Mustonen (token Brit) are very well balanced, giving this performance a coherence it doesn’t always get. Clarinet, cello and violin get star turns, but the relatively self-effacing piano part is what holds the whole group together.

Mustonen and Collins are so lucid that the first movement really lives up to its name, “the liturgy of crystal”, as clear and as hard-edged as crystal. Collins’ legato in the third movement floats effortlessly. Lines as slow, sensual and sustained as this require superlative breath control and judgement. Isserlis comes to the fore as soloist in the fifth movement where he plays long lines fluidly at a pace so slow his bow must hardly move. Just as the piece began with violin and piano at “the dawn of time”, it ends with the glorious Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus, where Bell’s playing soars, as if ascending to higher realms. This is an inspired performance, emotionally refreshing on a very deep level.

It’s a pity that this set as a whole is uneven. It is nice to hear early recordings but they only represent the state of interpretation at the time, even when they were made - as in the case of Dorati - in the presence of the composer. Messiaen still had twenty productive years ahead of him.

Indeed, we’re still in the process of assessing his work as a whole, and appreciating just how much more there is to him than the Turangalîla cliché. Many of the best current conductors were very close to Messiaen from youth, and have matured understanding his place in modern music. The best is yet to come!

Anne Ozorio

see also Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Complete Edition
Limited edition, includes 400-page booklet DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4801333 [32 CDs: c.34:00:00]

article Olivier MESSIAEN (1908–1992) by Julie Williams



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