Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Visions de L’Amen (1943) [46:00]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
En blanc et noir (1915) [14:42]
Ursula Oppens (piano I), Jerome Lowenthal (piano II)
rec. 3-4, 7 June 2009, American Academy of Arts and Letters
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 119 [60:51]
As fans of Messiaen’s Visions de L’Amen will know, it is a tricky business, elevating such demanding piano duo music not only into the realms of technical excellence, but also creating an atmosphere of spiritual exaltation and transcendence. I’ve been having a fish through the versions lurking in my collection, reminding myself of the beautifully played but surprisingly lightweight recording on Unicorn-Kanchana by Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith, and the high quality but still somewhat dry and dated version with John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas, now available on the Explore label. There is also the rather brutally punishing version with Maarten Bon and Reinbert de Leeuw in a tremendous box from Naïve. The best all-round recording I have had to date is that of Paul and Matthew Kim on the Centaur label, though I’m making no claims as to its having definitive status – I think I’ve yet to find a recording which really nails Messiaen’s vision, though Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod make their own unique case, and Steven Osborne and Martin Roscoe on Hyperion are world-beaters. Arguably, the medium of two pianos is after all just not the right one with which to achieve such Visions, but who am I to utter such heresy.
The recorded balance in this new disc with Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal is richer and more lower-mid heavy than with the Kim family. This serves the bass notes well, and makes the overall effect less clattering than some. There is still plenty of rhythmic impact however, and the mix stops well short of being woolly and indistinct. The American Academy of Arts and Letters acoustic is familiar through numerous chamber music recordings. While our noses are closer than they would be to the piano strings than in a concert setting and the hall resonance less relevant, the perspective is direct and believable.
Ursula Oppens is a familiar name in the contemporary music scene, having premiered a remarkable quantity of new music by a distinguished list of composers. Jerome Lowenthal is a less well known name, to me at least, but has been a part of the US music scene since the early 1960s both as a soloist and pedagogue. This pairing is thoroughly equal, and the warmth and energetic synergy between the players is palpable. Do they achieve that transcendent sense of ecstasy we all seem to be looking for in the Visions de L’Amen? I have the feeling that this can have a deal to do with the state of mind you are in when approaching such a recording, but this can be said of much music. This is a recording which rewards experiencing as a whole far more than dipping. I have to admit to being something of a litmus-test listener when initially tackling this kind of grand mountain of music, and had a few doubts at first. Having settled down and decided to listen properly, the sheer scale of the Oppens/Lowenthal performance reveals less a set of seven separate Visions, rather one huge canvas which leaves you staggered and breathless by the end. Yes, all of the elements are present, ranging from the dark atmospheric effects of the opening Amen de la Création, through a weighty Amen des étoiles… and a beautifully lyrical Amen du Désir. The widely ranging Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux is handled well, the remarkable contrasts rapid and inspirational. Our souls thus softened, the final two massive movements, the Amen du Jugement and Amen de la Consommation really are a kick in the solar plexus. Yes, the music is written to be so, but I’ve rarely heard the sheer impact with quite such a physical effect as here. The pay-off for that richer piano sound is a reduced level of funkyness in the rhythmic power of the final movement, something which Paul Kim and Son do very well indeed. The deepest bass becomes something of a noisy roar with the balance for Oppens/Lowenthal, but this is still pretty daunting stuff.
Debussy’s En blanc et noir caused something of a stir amongst a conservative older generation of composers in the Paris of 1915, and Jerome Lowenthal’s booklet notes open with the crusty criticisms of Camille Saint-Saëns. Nearly 100 years later, and our ears are by no means as scandalised by music which is filled with sparkling wit, atmospheric tragedy and the juxtaposition of innocent and sinister expression in its respective three movements. Tinged with the effects of war, there are military calls and other references all through this powerful work, and the logic of placing it against Messiaen’s Visions de L’Amen is entirely credible. This is far more than just a filler, and is very well played here by the Oppens/Lowenthal duo. They bring out the little Stravinskian touches and colour in the polytonal elements with precise and lively observation – great stuff, but no wonder Saint-Saëns threw a wobbly.
This is a very well recorded and superbly performed disc, and comes highly recommended. Is it the definitive Visions de L’Amen? Does such a thing exist? Right now I don’t care all that much, this is certainly the best recording of the work in my current collection.
Dominy Clements
Top local selection – a massive canvas.