This is a highly unusual coupling of works that are, putatively at least, linked by way of reactions to the experience of war. Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen is well enough known and has been recorded a number of times before, often in distinguished performances. But the real novelty is Shostakovich’s arrangement for two pianos of Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique. This is something that requires a brief explanation.
As Robert Matthew-Walker relates in his notes, the two composers had met in 1928 in Leningrad when the Swiss composer was cresting a popular wave due to the success of Pacific 231. There’s an especially evocative photograph in the booklet showing the two at the time with men such as Alexandre Kaménsky, Ioulian Vaynkope, and Iosef Schillinger. Shostakovich is bottom left, in a bow tie, almost slithering out of frame.
Two decades later Shostakovich attended the 1947 Prague Spring Festival and almost certainly heard a performance of the new Symphonie liturgique under Paul Sacher: he certainly acquired the newly published miniature score. As a composition professor in Leningrad he favoured four hand arrangements and, conjecturally, this Honegger work was part of a teaching regime. He’d already created a four-handed arrangement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms for student study, so it seems eminently reasonable to conclude that this was the Honegger’s raison d’être.
It was certainly a difficult undertaking, but Shostakovich does manage to evoke some of Honegger’s sense of hopeful dynamism and expressive lament. The piano reduction preserves the Dies Irae allusions in the first movement in a way that is arguably more explicit than in the orchestrated work. Where the arrangement suffers the most is probably in the central movement, where it can’t hope to convey Honegger’s intensity and intense span. The symphony’s colour obviously suffers, but what is not in doubt is the all-round excellence of the arrangement or its value to Shostakovich as a working tool.
Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen receives a judiciously prepared and excellently realised performance. Adrienne Soós and Ivo Haag have certainly calibrated their playing and present a consonant and technically dextrous realisation of a sometimes prolix score. What they can lack, at certain pivotal moments, is the kind of zestful personality that animated the recording by Argerich and Rabinovitch, for instance [EMI] who are, inevitably perhaps, more saturated in the work’s quicksilver vitality. Still more so in fact, though slightly less overtly virtuosic, are the composer and Yvonne Loriod, who left behind more than one august example of their partnership in this work.
A specialist acquisition, this, but one that posits a plausible connection between the two composers.