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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Éclairs sur l'Au-Delá... (1988-92)
I. Apparition du Christ glorieux [6:28]
II. La Constellation du Sagittaire [6:18]
III. L'Oiseau-lyre et la Ville-flancée [4:23]
IV. Les Élus marqués du sceau [1:52]
V. Demeurer dans l'Amour... [11:30]
VI. Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes [5:27]                     
VII. Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux... [3:49]
VIII. Les Étoiles et la Gloire [12:03]
IX. Plusieurs Oiseaux des arbres de Vie [2:56]
X. Le Chemin de l'Invisible [3:47]
XI. Le Christ, lumière du Paradis [8:23]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Ingo Metzmacher
rec. live, 20 January 2008, Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, Austria, ORF.
KAIROS MUSIC 0012742KAI [67:00]
Experience Classicsonline


A colleague at MusicWeb International recently remarked that first one admires Messiaen’s music and then one comes to love it. But if some Internet forums are anything to go by there is still a lot of hostility towards the composer and his unique sound-world; indeed, one disgruntled poster complained that there’s more musicality ‘in a pig’s oink’. As one who has delighted in much of Messiaen’s mystico-spiritual œuvre, from the solo piano pieces through to the organ and orchestral works and the opera St François d’Assise, I am simply baffled by such disparaging remarks.

Éclairs, written for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1992, is Messiaen’s last and possibly one of his finest works, eliciting first my unqualified admiration and, eventually, something much more profound. No question, this man’s music is a pilgrimage with many stages, but it’s a journey well worth making. The South Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung is one such traveller, recording some fine Messiaen discs along the way. His version of Éclairs, with the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille (DG 439 929), is the first of my comparative versions; the second is by Dutch conductor David Porcelijn and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (ABC Classics ABC 4425102).

I wasn’t surprised to see Ingo Metzmacher associated with this score – he conducted a rare performance of St François at last year’s Proms – but I was curious to hear how the Viennese band would fare in what is hardly core repertoire for them. As for Porcelijn he may be a strong champion of Australian music but he’s certainly made an impact with Éclairs as well. Most important, though, is that all three conductors are united by their passion for new music, and that’s a real plus in this demanding repertoire.

Loosely translated as ‘Illuminations of the Beyond...’ Éclairs continues Messiaen’s fascination with every aspect of his Catholic faith. Unfortunately that religiosity is often cited as a bar to the enjoyment of his music; that’s a real shame, because even if you don’t ‘do’ God there is much to enjoy here. The first movement, ‘The Apparition of Christ in Glory’, has a palpable sense of majesty, the chant-like rise and fall of the music adding to its growing sense of ecstasy. As expected the Viennese brass are rich and creamy, easily eclipsing their Australian and French counterparts  The Bastille band are the least transported of the three; indeed, Chung’s performance, although decently recorded, seems somewhat cool and detached throughout. By contrast Porcelijn’s players are much more characterful, producing some unusually piquant sonorities.

This movement contains several pauses that can easily impede the flow of the music. Metzmacher’s is the only live recording here and he does allow quite a bit of time to elapse between strophes, which may irritate some listeners; that said, it’s the stage and audience noises that are most off-putting. But such criticisms are quickly forgotten in the gong- and percussion-led second movement, ‘The Constellation of Sagittarius’, complete with birdsong. Again the WP acquit themselves very well indeed, the Austrian Radio engineers capturing a deep, thrilling soundstage. The more exotic percussion is particularly well caught. The orchestra is quite closely miked, especially in that yearning string theme that begins at 4:48, yet that gentle percussive stroke at 5:18 resonates beautifully in the hall and in the mind. It’s one of those spine-tingling epiphanies that makes this music so terribly moving.

The DG performance strikes me as the weakest of the three at this point; Porcelijn’s reading is wonderfully clear-eyed, his birds a little more distant than Metzmacher’s, but they’re no less effective for that. Sonically the ABC recording is full and clear – the percussive decay is very atmospheric – but the ORF engineers have the upper hand when it comes to those more elusive timbres. That is particularly true of the third movement, ‘The Lyre-bird and the Bridal City’, where the closer Viennese balance delivers prodigious amounts of detail. It’s all gain, though, especially with the tuned percussion which, on record at least, has seldom sounded so lifelike. And if you’re worried that this might be a bit too fatiguing don’t be, because the recording is never tizzy or over-bright in the upper registers.

At this stage old allegiances were coming under strain. I’ve long cherished the Porcelijn recording – one of the most-played Messiaen discs in my collection – but for all its character and felicities of detail it faces stiff competition from Metzmacher and his crew. The added concentration of a live performance probably works in the WP’s favour, but then few orchestras could tackle this challenging repertoire with such authority and aplomb. In the short fourth movement, ‘The Elect marked with the Seal’, the panoply of birdsong is underpinned by matchless playing from the Viennese percussionists.

Similarly, in ‘Abide in Love...’ the WP strings bring a special intensity to the music’s long, melismatic lines, even though the microphones do pick up a fair amount of shuffle and squeak from the stage. This is one of the most glorious movements in all Messiaen, with achingly beautiful sonorities and cadences. Listeners familiar with the Turangalîla-Symphonie might well recall the sinuous love music played on the ondes Martenot, but this time Messiaen finds a naive purity of utterance that is just remarkable. Porcelijn’s players are most eloquent here and even the Bastille band delve deeper into the score than hitherto. But the WP performance outshines them all, those incandescent strings – so magical in Mahler – sounding simply glorious.

At the centre of this work is ‘The Seven Angels with Seven Trumpets’, which opens with grave-cracking drum thwacks and a repeated unison theme for horns, trombones and bassoons. This is Messiaen at his most theatrical, the imperious brass and the Eastern shimmer of various gongs strongly reminiscent of the composer’s earlier La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. Again the immediacy of the ORF recording pays dividends, with every stroke and snap easily caught. Porcelijn comes a close second but his more recessed recording is nowhere near as visceral as Metzmacher’s. The same is true of Chung’s performance, which sounds too controlled – polite, even – for music of such obvious passion and splendour. I particularly like the long decay of that last gong stroke fading into the silence of the Musikvereinsaal. Simply hair-raising.

‘And God will wipe every tear from their eyes...’ brings the rapturous Messiaen – and his beloved birds – to the fore again, combining the familiar twitter of woodwind with rich, but restrained, playing from the brass. The Sydney recording may be less overt Austrian one but even then it’s infinitely preferable to the undercharged French performance. Meanwhile the angelus-like ‘Stars and their Glory’ comes across with a tangible sense of mystery and awe. The competing musical strands are clearly delineated in all three recordings – this is one of those strangely opaque movements that so infuriates the anti-Messiaen brigade – but it’s the Viennese who invest the score with an extra degree of exoticism and inner drive.

After the thrilling climax of that movement – a truly celestial display – there is something a bit more down to earth in the sound of ‘Several birds from the Tree of Life’, before we returns to inscrutable metaphysics in ‘The Way of the Invisible’. The sheer depth and breadth of the opening bars couldn’t be more of a contrast, especially with the Viennese band, who make that great glissando sound truly terrifying. Metzmacher also screws up the tension in a way I’ve never encountered before, the percussion-led perorations simply awesome. Neither Porcelijn nor Chung comes even close to matching the Viennese here. That said, the Sydney percussionists do acquit themselves well, while the French band remain curiously earthbound throughout. It’s a problem I also encountered with Chung’s Radio France recording of Des canyons aux étoiles (DG 471 617), another Messiaen work just crying out to be recorded by Metzmacher and his WP players.

In the crowning ‘Christ, the Light of Paradise’ we are back to that Turangalîla-like love music, reprised with even more sinuousness and intensity than before. One grumble, though; there are quite a few bumps and thumps from the stage which, on headphones at least, becomes irritating after a while. Porcelijn is every bit as moving here, and he brings Éclairs to a memorably rapt and gentle close. His players really do give of their best here, and the results are literally out of this world.

So, which recording should you buy? Chung is a major disappointment, I feel, so that leaves Porcelijn and Metzmacher. There is also a Berlin Philharmonic performance with Sir Simon Rattle, but I find his Messiaen too mannered for my tastes, although others will vehemently disagree. As much as I love the Porcelijn performance – and I wouldn’t want to part with it – Metzmacher trumps him at every turn. Indeed, I’d say this new version is the most radiant and rewarding performance of Éclairs sur l'Au-Delá... now before the public.

Dan Morgan


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