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