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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline


Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Chamber Works
Fantaisie (1933) [8:59]
Quatuor pour le fin du Temps (1940) [45:39]
Le Merle Noir (1952) [6:24]
Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (1991) [3:07]
Morceau de lecture à vue (1934) [1:59]

Matthew Schellhorn (piano); soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra: James Clark (violin); Philippe Honoré (violin); Rache Roberts (viola); David Cohen (cello); Kenneth Smith (flute); Barnaby Robson (clarinet)
rec. 17-19 February 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD126 [66:38] 


Experience Classicsonline

This disc of chamber works by Messiaen begins with the Fantaisie for violin and piano, composed in 1933 for Messiaen to play with his wife, Claire Delbos. Relatively unknown, it was first published in 2007 after its discovery by Messiaen’s second wife after his death. This is a strong work, with fluctuating rhythms, and a sectional form which makes use of soaring melodies, varying textures and unisons. The work also uses melodic material from L’Ascension and possesses traces of Messiaen’s characteristic chromatic harmony. This is a stunning performance, with a wonderful violin sound blending with some excellent piano playing.

The Quartet for the End of Time is probably Messiaen’s best known chamber piece. Its background and first performance at the Stalag VIIIA concentration camp in January 1941 are well documented. This is an extraordinary work, full of hope, far-reaching possibilities and deep contemplation about the human condition. Time itself is central to the work, and in listening we become consumed by Messiaen’s evocative language and manipulation of our sense of time. I have heard the work performed live a number of times, and each group of performers brings its own meaning to the work. This group is no different, although the change in recorded sound after the Fantaisie meant that I had to turn up the volume for the first couple of movements and it took me a while to settle in. Barnaby Robson makes an excellent job of the solo clarinet movement, Abîme des Oiseaux, and there is some wonderful phrasing of the melodic lines in the Intermède which demonstrates the talents of these players. The Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus for cello and piano is arguably one of the most spiritual moments in Messiaen’s music and always has a profound effect on me. This is a stirring performance by David Cohen which is among the best I’ve heard, with its wonderful rising tensions and hypnotic piano accompaniment. The interruption in the form of the Danse de la fureur, is a sudden return to reality, once again beautifully phrased, although the ‘fury’ of the title felt a little more like mild irritation. I would have liked a little more fire in its belly. The ensemble, however, is excellent, with each instrument’s sound combining in the unisons to create an entirely new instrumental sound of its own. The Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel is an extended depiction of the arrival of the Angel, a reverie of sound which is full of dreams, hope and colour. The final thought-provoking Louange is another simply constructed meditation with deep religious connotations, played with a wonderful depth of emotion. This is a fantastic recording of a twentieth century masterpiece, with some world-class playing throughout. 

Le Merle noir was one of a long tradition of flute and piano works composed for the final exam at the Paris Conservatoire. Each year a new piece was commissioned, and these exams contributed much to the flute’s recital repertoire, including works by Gaubert, Chaminade, Taffanel and Faure. Messiaen’s work was written for the 1952 exam and includes cadenzas, flowing melodies with additive rhythms and Messiaen’s characteristic use of bird song: in this case, that of the blackbird. The final section also includes one of Messiaen’s early experiments with serialism. Kenneth Smith’s cadenzas are much slower than some I have heard, losing some of the dramatic and earthy sense of the piece. However, the quicker passages have a clarity which is sometimes lost in faster versions. His melodic lines are beautifully phrased, and are performed with a lovely tone quality. The final section is biting and energetic, carefully played with equal balance between the flute and piano. 

The short Pièce our piano et quatuor á cordes (Piece for piano and string quartet) was composed to commemorate the 90th birthday of publisher Alfred Schlee, head of Universal Edition. Again in sectional form, this is a simple but dramatic work, bringing together bird song, unisons and additive rhythms. 

The final work on the disc is the Morceau de lecture à vue (sight-reading piece), which was composed in 1934 for the piano sight-reading exams at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, and is heard here in its world premiere recording. Although rhythmically simpler than most of Messiaen’s music, it features richly chromatic harmony and melodic material which he later used in the vingt regards. 

Matthew Schellhorn’s piano playing is excellent through the disc and he is joined by some talented colleagues from the Philharmonia.

Carla Rees

see also Review by Anne Ozorio


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