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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Complete Edition
CDs 1-7 Piano Music
CDs 8-13 Organ Music
CDs 14-15
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ
CDs 16-19 Opera: Saint François d'Assise
CDs 20-32 Other Music (see below)
Limited edition, includes 400-page booklet in English and French, including complete sung texts and libretto
Detailed listing at end of review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4801333 [32 CDs: c.34:00:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This 32 CD set was issued in November 2008 to commemorate the centenary of Olivier Messiaen’s birth. It contains all the works which the composer considered to be worthwhile. This is not a vast output for a compositional career spanning 64 years - compared, say, to Bach or Mozart - but at least it is practical for a listener to become familiar with the complete oeuvre. Amongst the reasons why one might do so are the consistently high levels of inspiration and originality in his music. There is also more variety than might be expected if one only knows the “famous” works. After composing a few pieces recalling Debussy and Fauré, Messiaen developed a highly characteristic style which blended profound spirituality with the world of nature in predominantly large canvases using imaginative instrumentation. His life and works have been summarised on MusicWeb by Julie Williams.

 I should say without further ado that this is a highly desirable low-priced box. Unlike many such collections - for example EMIs recent large Elgar and Vaughan Williams boxes - this one is superbly presented; the booklet alone would a desirable acquisition. There are extensive and authoritative notes on all the works and high quality photographs plus texts and English translations. The sound quality is generally excellent and the majority of the recordings are recent. The most significant exception to that is the 1962 reading of Visions de l'amen given by the composer and Yvonne Loriod shortly after they were married. Even there, though, few allowances need to be made for the sound and it was good to have the composer also represented as a performer.

There is bad news though – if the above has whetted the appetite, you may be in for a hard time trying to buy this, at least at the moment. As far as I can tell, the product sold out on the east side of “the pond” - where it was priced at about £70-£80 - in about a month. On the other hand, in mid-January 2009 it was still in stock at in the USA but priced at about $250 dollars – at least twice as much. DG declared it to be a “limited edition” and may therefore be reluctant to reprint it. I would also suspect that very few copies will be finding their way into second-hand shops in a hurry. Interestingly, it was still present in the DG Web Shop at the time of writing, although listed as unavailable, making me wonder if it is slated for downloading. That would be an excellent idea although I don’t know how practical a pdf file of the booklet would be from the user perspective.

 Next, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the major works in the box. First up are Roger Muraro’s laudable recordings of the piano music, recorded a few years back. Most of these seem to be live performances and I would assume that they are those which have appeared - and are still available - on Accord. Then come Olivier Latry’s readings of the organ music which were positively reviewed on MusicWeb in 2002. The major choral work La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ is superbly given under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung whose readings of several major orchestral works, notably the Turangalîla-Symphonie, Des canyons aux étoiles and the valedictory Éclairs sur l'au-delà... are also included. Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra pick up the rest while Messiaen’s solitary opera Saint François d'Assise is represented by Kent Nagano’s recording with the Hallé orchestra and José van Dam taking the title role. Daniel Barenboim is the pianist in the 1978 recording of Messiaen’s only major chamber work - famously written and first performed in a prisoner of war camp - Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

All the recordings mentioned in the previous paragraph are reckoned to be amongst the best versions available of the relevant pieces and many of the artists involved worked with the composer and/or his wife. In particular, Nagano’s Saint François d'Assise is surely peerless. Messiaen enthusiasts are likely to have some of these recordings already but, where they do not, they would represent, at the very least, a valid alternative view. Latry’s organ (Notre-Dame) sounds rather different to Gillian Weir’s (Aarhus) and his often seems a more restrained approach. Perhaps Chung’s Turangalîla-Symphonie can seem slightly understated, particularly in the last movement and by comparison with Nagano on Warner. But the composer gave his blessing to it just before he died and it’s hard to argue with that. There are no doubts at all about Chung’s Des canyons aux étoiles which was a Recording of the Month in February 2003 (see review). Quatuor pour la fin du temps is given a very intense performance which had me on the edge of my seat for much of the time.

That said, perhaps the most compelling reason for most potential purchasers to invest in this set - or to endeavour to! - will be to the hear works I have not yet mentioned. That was certainly my prime motivation. Indeed DG had to make some new recordings during 2008 to plug the gaps. Some of these were collected together and rapidly issued on a single disc (see review). I can certainly echo Anne Ozorio’s positive comments about Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine.

Amongst the less familiar works which particularly caught my ear was La fête des belles eaux for a sextet of ondes martenot, an instrument which Messiaen did much to champion. Messiaen’s vocal music is often overtly attractive – for example the Vocalise-étude of 1935. The early song-cycle Poèmes pour Mi was written for his first wife and is given in both the orchestral version and with piano accompaniment. If this is essential listening, the later cycle Harawi – subtitled Song of love and death – dating from 1945 is even more mesmerising and is wonderfully sung by Yumi Nara. The Cinq Rechants (five refrains) for unaccompanied voices are spiky and striking indeed. The composer’s passion for birdsong is evident in so many works aside from the marvellous piano catalogue on discs 5-7 – for example Le merle noir for flute and piano is a brief gem. Amongst the places the composer visited on his travels was Japan and his Sept Haïkaï - seven Japanese sketches for piano and ensemble - of 1962 are interesting indeed. One of the most fascinating pieces here is Messiaen’s only concerto – or is it a sinfonia concertante? – the concert à quatre. This was incomplete at the time of composer’s death and partially orchestrated by his widow. Just look at the line-up of soloists for whom Messiaen wrote the work: Yvonne Loriod (piano), Catherine Cantin (flute), Heinz Holliger (oboe), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello).

Unsurprisingly, there were other commemorative Messiaen compilations issued last year but I am not in a position to make direct comparisons. I can say that this one is simply splendid and that it is hard to imagine that any of the others could possibly have surpassed it. Far from being an exercise directed at completists only, listening to this set has been a life-enhancing experience. I do hope DG will see the light and make it generally available again soon.
Patrick C Waller
see also Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Orchestral and Chamber Works and Song-Cycles  DECCA 478 0352 [6 CDs:] [AOz]
Detailed listing of works and artists
CDs 1-7 Piano Music: Eight Preludes (1928-9) [33:01]; La fauvette des jardins (1972) [32:26]; Petites Esquisses d'oiseaux (1985) [13:38]; Quatre études de rhythme (1949) [16:55]; Cantéyodjayâ (1948) [13:07]; Rondeau (1943) [2:28]; Fantaisie burlesque (1932) [7:28]; Prelude (1964) [2:51]; Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935) [3:33]; Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus (1944) [118:55]; Catalogue d'oiseau (1956-8) [149:53]
all Roger Muraro (piano). rec. 1998-2001;
CDs 8-13 Organ Music: Apparition de l'église (1932) [9:45]; La nativité du Seigneur (1935) [62:58]; Le banquet céleste (1928) [7:03]; Offrande au Saint (1930-5) [5:06]; Diptyque (1930) [11:22]; Les corps glorieux (1939) [55:03]; Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) [72:20]; Prelude [9:00]; Verset pour la fête de la dédicace (1960) [8:03]; Monodie (1963) [2:53]; L'Ascension - 4 Meditations (1934) [27:13]; Messe de la Pentecôte (1950) [28:34]; Livre d'orgue (1951) [44:52]; Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984) [101:40]
all Olivier Latry (organ). rec. 2000;
CDs 14-15: La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965-9) [99:47]
Emmanuel Curt (vibraphone); Thomas Prevost (flute); Roger Muraro (piano); Eric Levionnois (cello); Robert Fontaine (clarinet); Francis Petit (marimba); Renaud Muzzolini (xylorimba); Radio France Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 2001;
CDs 16-19 Opera: Saint François d'Assise (1983) [234:45]
Dawn Upshaw (soprano) - The Angel; José van Dam (baritone) - St. Francis; Chris Merritt (tenor) - The Leper; Urban Malmberg (baritone) - Brother Leo; John Aler (tenor) - Brother Masseo; Guy Renard (tenor) - Brother Elias; Tom Krause (bass) - Brother Bernard; Akos Banlaky (baritone) - Brother Sylvester; Dirk D'Ase-(baritone) Brother Rufus; Jeanne Loriod; Valerie Hartmann-Claverie & Dominique Kim (ondes martenot); Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Hallé Orchestra/ Kent Nagano. rec. 1998;
CDs 20-32 Other Music: Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-8) [78:32]
Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot); Yvonne Loriod (piano); Bastille Opera Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 1990;
Des canyons aux étoiles (1970-4) [92:07]
Roger Muraro (piano); Francis Petit (xylorimba); Jean-Jacques Justafré (horn); Renaud Muzzolini (glockenspiel); Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 2001;
Chronochromie (1960) [23:47]; La ville d'en haut (1987) [9:17]; Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) [24:31]
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez. rec. 1993;
Concert à quatre (1991) [26:11]
Yvonne Loriod (piano); Catherine Cantin (flute); Heinz Holliger (oboe); Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Bastille Opera Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 1994;
Les offrandes oubliées (1930) [12:38]; Un sourire (1991) [10:37]; Le tombeau resplendissant (1931) [15:25]; Éclairs sur l'au-delà... (1987-91) [64:56]
Bastille Opera Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 1993-4;
Poèmes pour Mi (1936) [28:44]
Françoise Pollet (soprano); Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez. rec. 1994;
Réveil des oiseaux (1953) [20:11]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano);
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez. rec. 1994;
Sept Haïkaï (1962) [22:50]
Joela Jones (piano); Cleveland Orchestra Pierre Boulez. rec. 1994;
La fête des belles eaux (1937) [31:35]
Jeanne Loriod Sextet (ondes martenot). rec. 1980;
Quatre Inedits [11:12]
Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot); Yvonne Loriod (piano). rec. 1999;
Chant dans le style de Mozart [3:28]
Guy Deplus (Clarinet); Yvonne Loriod (piano). rec. 1999;
Le merle noir (1951) [5:54]
Christian Larde (flute); Yvonne Loriod (piano). rec. 1999;
Cinq Rechants (1949) [17:11]
Le Madrigal Ensemble/Jean-Paul Kreder. rec. 1966;
Chantes de déportés (1945) [3:36]
BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis. rec. 1995;
O sacrum convivium! (1937) [3:51]
Cambridge St. John's College Choir/George Guest. rec. 1969;
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940) [49:07]
Daniel Barenboim (piano); Luben Yordanoff (violin); Albert Tetard (cello); Claude Desurmont (clarinet). rec. 1978
Piece for Piano and String Quartet [3:28]
Yvonne Loriod (piano); Rosemonde String Quartet. rec. 1999;
Oiseaux exotiques 1956) [13:37]
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly. rec. 1995;
Harawi (1945) [60:29]
Yumi Nara (soprano); Jay Gottlieb (piano). rec. 1989;
Trois Mélodies (1930) [6:28]
Sylvia McNair (soprano); Roger Vignoles (piano). rec. 1996;
La mort du nombre (1930) [12:00]
Hervé Lamy (tenor); Françoise Pollet (soprano); Agnès Sulem-Bialobroda (violin); Yvonne Loriod (piano). rec. 1999;
Trois petites liturgies de la Présence [33:41] (1944)
Valerie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot); Helene Collerette (violin); Roger Muraro (piano); Maîtrise de Radio France; Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 2008;
Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963) [17:29]
Catherine Cournot (piano); Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 2008;
Hymne au Saint-Sacrement (1932) [16:46]
Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 2008;
Fantasie for Violin and Piano [8:02]
Daniel Hope (violin); Marie Vermeulen (piano). rec. 2008;
Thème et Variations for Violin and Piano (1932) [7:31]
Martha Argerich (piano); Gidon Kremer (violin). rec. 1985;
L'Ascension for Orchestra (1933) [32:17]
Bastille Opera Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. rec. 1990;
Poèmes pour Mi (1936) [26:30]
Noelle Barker (soprano); Robert Sherlaw Johnson (piano). rec. 1971;
Un vitrail et des oiseaux (1986) [9:35]
Yvonne Loriod (piano); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Karl Anton Rickenbacher. rec. 2008;
Vocalise-étude (1935) [4:50]
Nathalie Manfrino (soprano); Marie Vermeulen (piano). rec. 2008;
Visions de l'amen (1943) [46:08]
Yvonne Loriod (piano); Olivier Messiaen (piano). rec. 1962
Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938) [25:05]
Noelle Barker (soprano); Robert Sherlaw Johnson (piano). rec. 1971.


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