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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps
(1940)* [47:07]
Zygmunt KRAUSE
(b. 1938)

Quatuor pour la Naissance
(1985)* [17:45]
Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus I-X (1944) [56:41]
Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus XI-XX [71:25]
Harawi (1945)** [51:35]
Joanna MacGregor (piano); Madeleine Mitchell (violin), David Campbell (clarinet), Christopher van Kampen (cello)*; Charlotte Riedijk (soprano)**
rec. Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk April, October 1993 (Quatuors); 17-21 September 1995 (Vingt regards); St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol June 2002 (Harawi)
WARNER CLASSICS SOUNDCIRCUS 2564 68393-2 [4 CDs: 66:07 + 56:41 + 71:25 + 51:35]

Experience Classicsonline

This fascinating four disc set gives us a great deal to get our teeth into, but only one of the pieces, Harawi, is in fact a new recording. The rest of the recordings here appeared on the now defunct Collins Classics label in the 1990s, so at the very least we can welcome the revival of some sadly missed releases on the classical shelves; at best this is a celebration of some marvellous music-making.

The Quatuor pour la fin du Temps is blessed with numerous recordings (see MusicWeb International’s own useful survey here), and, while it can often be rather hard-hitting, that with Yvonne Loriod at the piano has to be a respected reference (see review). Joanna MacGregor and colleague’s recording is a little distant, but this creates a pleasant ‘concert hall’ effect which I recall from other Collins Classics recordings. Timings are comparable in general between these two versions, with a few of the longer movements being more compact with Loriod. This however, in short, is the essence of the difference between the two recordings. While MacGregor’s quartet are in no way lacking in superb content and excellent musicianship, at every turn the group around Yvonne Loriod has the edge in terms of intensity and sheer communication. I hate to generalise, but in general the MacGregor quartet is just that little more laid-back, a tad less emphatic with dynamics and phrasing, a smidge less searching when it comes to finding that essential spiritual element. If you weren’t in a position to compare with anything then none of this would matter, and taken in isolation MacGregor and her companions produce a marvellous recording of this piece, and perhaps it is only a side-effect of the more remote-sounding recording after all. The gentle piano strokes and singing birds of the opening Liturgie de cristal are really poetic, the Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps has genuine impact and lyrical expressiveness, and, though balanced a tad forward in terms of the other instruments while in ensemble, David Campbell’s clarinet produces an elegant Abīme des oiseaux. The Intermède is gorgeously witty, Christopher van Kampen’s cello solo in the Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus is rather recessed in the recorded balance, but is expressive enough. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes is made a bit woolly, the warm resonance of the piano taking away some of the subtlety of colour difference from the other instruments as they play in unison. We are missing some of the richness of the cello’s sonorities in this recording, and this becomes more irritating in movements where it plays such an important role, such as the Foullis d’arcs-en-ciel. The final Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus is, as everything else here, beautifully played, but given an easy-listening distance from the listener, ultimately making genuine involvement less than easy. This is a Quatuor pour la fin du Temps which will do the work’s reputation no harm whatsoever, but the rather vague and distant recording mitigate against its having a first choice position amongst the best of the competition.

I recently bumped into Zygmunt Krauze as a member of the accreditation panel for the internationally acclaimed music institute at which I work. Shaking his hand was like a brief encounter with a highly respected but distant deity, my impressionable childhood ears having been awakened in the 1970s to some of the bizarre potential of chance sonorities and disparate juxtaposition of musicians and music-making machines in his remarkable composition Automatophone. Composed over ten years later, Quatuor pour la Naissance occupies an entirely different sound-world. Written partly out of emotions generated before the birth of his son, this is a sometimes strange, frequently subtly eloquent single movement piece which develops an unequal and uneven counterpoint to express “violence, pain, hope, joy and love”. The work’s transparency derives through a unity of some surprisingly classical sounding material, and a shifting variety of horizontal musical conversations between the instruments, culminating in a remarkably beautiful conjoining of the ensemble in a beatific conclusion. Nice piece, great man. We passed the accreditation by the way, so no bias need be declared.

Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus is a highlight of 20th century piano repertoire, and there are plenty of decent and excellent recordings in the catalogue these days. Joanna MacGregor’s recording is among the best, though is stronger in some aspects than others. The piano sound is warm and full, the atmosphere of the slow movements filled with timeless wonder. Regard de la Vierge No.4 for instance is truly magical, and the depth of piano colour is something which makes this recording preferable to Paul Kim’s (see review), where the Centaur piano sound is a good deal narrower and drier. This is not necessarily the case in terms of performance. MacGregor’s view of the piece is essentially a romantic one, and in this and other movements she does have an inclination to throw in a few extra rubati, which listeners may or may not appreciate. I have read some commentators describing this as bad taste, but I wouldn’t go that far. Messiaen’s music can take a certain amount of expressive license, and I don’t find myself offended by MacGregor’s interpretations. The spectacular movements, such as No.5 Regard du Fils sur le Fils are very impressive, but more than this, through all the tumult this kind of movement retains structure and direction; even variety of colour, while the piano is being pushed to its limits. The massive piano sound benefits huge expressive gesture, such as the octaves in No.7, Regard de la Croix, and these qualities are the kind of thing which will bring you back to a recording like this, whatever subjective imperfections may be pointed out by experts. If anything No. 12, La parole toute-puissante is in its vast percussiveness almost too much for the resonant environment, and there are recordings which communicate more detail with a less weight to the bass sound. I still like it however, and with the “fiery flames” of No. 14, Regard des anges and other of the more violent movements MacGregor projects power in an irresistible fashion. Again, the argument against stretching tempi might argue against the elongated lyricism in No. 15, the beautiful Le Baiser de l'enfant Jésus, here played more as a prayer than a hymn. Wherever stillness and contemplation are demanded, MacGregor is as good as anyone, and No. 17, Regard du silence and No. 19, Je dors, mais mon cœur veille are exemplary in this regard. Apocalyptic strength is and dramatic tension is held tightly throughout the entire cycle, and the energies built up reach their apotheosis in the final movement, nearly 15 minutes of the Regard de l’église d’amour, which is truly breathtaking. This may not be the only version of the Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus you want in a good library, Yvonne Loriod, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Roger Muraro, Paul Kim and Håkon Austbø are just a few names which deserve attention in this work. Joanna MacGregor has performed this piece a good deal in concert, and in this way has brought more than a few converts to Messiaen. This is the kind of recording which can easily have a similar effect, and as such can take pride of place in any Messiaen piano collection.

I was impressed by the recent Naxos release of Harawi by Hetna Regitze Bruun and
Kristoffer Hyldig (see review), and so refreshed my memory in order to have a reference against which Charlotte Riedijk’s singing might be compared. Riedijk’s voice is a little darker and more mezzo-esque than Bruun’s, and this gives the lower registers an extra shot of potency. Riedijk has less of a tendency to ‘act’ than Bruun, working with the subtleties of the score but keeping greater integrity with the notes where Bruun is prepared to do a little sliding around in No.3 Montagnes for instance. Riedijk is also less operatic, the drama of No.4 Doundou tchil more salon than stage, but still with plenty of power. I like the way she changes the colour of that strange ‘doundou tchil’ phrase as the dynamic rises, though the actual volume remains fairly constant. Her tenderness in L’amour de Piroutcha is very touching, and in terms of emotional/expressive range I feel she has the edge on Bruun. Her technique is also pretty nimble around those widely spread notes in the Répétition planétaire, and the recorded balance favours her more in those gentle single-note phrases where the Naxos piano sound tends to swamp Bruun’s voice.

Point for point there is no clear winner if we’re comparing just these two recordings. The Bruun/Hyldig duo do seem to get a more ‘French’ sounding performance, and while her voice is never unattractive I don’t prefer the higher register of Riedijk’s voice or her slower vibrato, and there are a few moments where she is a little under the note in terms of intonation. This is an excellent recording however, the voice and piano better balanced and integrated than with the Naxos recording. Does it beat all-comers when it comes to performance? I certainly don’t consider it as weak, though I didn’t feel it has quite as much impact as a whole experience than with Bruun and Hyldig. Joanna MacGregor is a superlative accompanist, if that is the correct word in a piece where the piano plays such an essential and equal partnership with the voice. It is hard to pin down, but the sense of involvement with the piece is at a lower pitch here. Take the remarkable No.9, L’escalier redit, gestes de soleil, where the rather straight projection of a text filled with extravagantly wide-ranging commentary on death doesn’t really move or inspire. As part of this set this is a welcome and attractive addition to Joanna MacGregor’s recorded repertoire, and as a very good recording and performance will certainly fill the bill if you want to tick Harawi off as a part of your CD library. Harawi is however one of those pieces which can and should make you feel you’ve died and been re-born, and I didn’t quite achieve that feeling with this release.

In the end this is both a bit of a mixed bag and a tremendous one-stop Messiaen collection. If your priority is the best of the best at any price then you will probably want to pick ’n’ mix your own library collection, but if you want a semi-nostalgic set of re-releases and new stuff from one of our most renowned pianists and a collection of top-notch musical compatriots, then this is a highly attractive package. Either way, Collins Classics ain’t coming back, so if you want Joanna MacGregor’s Messiaen, this is the only place.

Dominy Clements

A one-stop instant Messiaen collection, and very well played indeed.


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