Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux is something of a 20th
century bible for pianists involved with contemporary music,
and there are now a good deal of excellent recordings around.
Competition comes from Pierre-Laurent Aimard on DG, who studied
with Messiaen’s pianist wife and muse, Peter Hill on Regis and
Kim on Centaur, both of whom to a greater or lesser extent
under the guidance of Messiaen himself. It seems as if every
pianist prefers to have some kind of authentic link to the great
man, and in Momo Kodama’s case this imprimatur comes from a
statement of support from Seiji Ozawa in the booklet, who knew
Messiaen and conducted premieres of some of his major works.
As time goes on, these connections and links inevitably become
more tenuous, making reviewers and historians aware of how composers
we’ve seen in the flesh so swiftly become more abstract icons.
Perhaps more importantly she was asked by Yvonne Loriod to premiere
Messiaen’s forgotten 1933 Fantaisie pour violin et piano, which
she did at La Roque d'Anthéron with Isabelle Faust. Momo Kodama
is the sister of Mari Kodama who has become known in the West
for her recordings on the Pentatone label. Momo has already
recorded the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus on Triton.
These Triton boxes have a luxury feel, and fans of SACD sound
will have plenty to get their teeth into with this recording.
The depth of piano sound is very good, the instrument close
and immediate but very listenable – impeccably prepared and
inhabiting a sympathetic and relatively non-intrusive acoustic.
Any pianist tackling the Catalogue d’oiseaux had better
have the technical ability to deal with its demands, and Momo
Kodama plays with magnificent assurance. Any comparison I make
deals in gradations of brilliance, and while there might be
a few comments to be made in favour of one or other recording
this Triton set is of a very high standard, and truly excellent
in most regards.
My main reference is that of Peter Hill, originally on the Unicorn-Kanchana
label. I’ve kept the faith with this set from the late 1980s
for, while Paul Kim is also majestic as a performer, his instrument
is recorded a tad more thinly and has one or two twangy notes
which can irritate after a while. The Unicorn/Regis recording
engineered by Bob Auger is perhaps a little softer around the
edges than for Momo Kodama, but is every bit as rich and rewarding.
Reluctant to trust my ears and impressions alone I hauled a
few volumes of scores out of the library to make sure I wasn’t
talking nonsense, and rather than go through every movement
I’m highlighting a few examples to give an impression of what’s
Having played through Kodama’s Le Chocard des Alpes,
the first of the collection, and not being entirely convinced,
Peter Hill shows why. Both players’ openings are craggy and
impressive, but Hill’s greater forward momentum compresses the
rhythms and gives a more titanic feel to the montant vers
le glacier de la Meidje. Kodama is arguably more implacable
et massif, but her rocks are less stable under your feet.
Hill is more true to the dynamics in the score, grading the
fff, ff and f markings
and maintaining intensity with Messiaen’s repetitions, where
Kodama occasionally allows the weight to slip a little, for
example in the first introduction of the Chocard des Alpes.
She tends to give the rests a little too much emphasis as well
in my opinion. Messiaen fills this piece and most of the others
in this collection with a variety of pauses, but there needs
to be a sense of logic and continuity, a tension between the
notes rather than just breaks between them. Kodama throws in
an extra little note at 1:59 – a little rebound after some intense
repetition, but as stated before I always marvel at the superhuman
achievement of performing this music effectively. A pianist
colleague once told me that Messiaen’s piano music was essentially
quite pianistic and therefore not as difficult to play as it
sounds, but I’m still reluctant to believe this. Without labouring
too many points, Kodama’s touch is filled with accuracy and
refinement, but Hill gets so much more out of each accent, and
his evenness of touch creates the right kind jaw-dropping definition
in the swiftest passages, and the right kind of atmosphere in
those slow rising passages, ascension immobile et mystérieuse.
Moving on to one of the best ever musical evocations of night
– or the moments just before sunrise, Le Loriot is filled
with little touches of Debussy-like warmth amongst the warbling
birds. Kodama is again very good, but those opening chords and
each repetition of them could use being more sustained – they
just miss out on being able to establish that feel of an absolute
thrill of calm and anticipation. There is a little more rubato
in the actual song of the Loriot, but Kodama thrives
amongst the forests of notes which form the birdsong, and her
lyrical touch is marvellous. She does snatch a bit at some of
the fastest of the passages, which means that the notes are
less telling than in Hill’s interpretation. Where the birdsong
develops its own momentum the notes can be luminous, but the
two-part counterpoint of the Fauvette des jardins section
escapes being the aural carpet-pattern of birdsong which Hill
manages to create by a small margin. His Grive musicienne
towards the end of the movement is also breathtaking, Kodama’s
slower tempo providing less impact and therefore less contrast
with the sublime final bars, which are rather jangly.
The differences in definition are there as well in La Merle
bleu, but I found myself relishing Kodama’s playing here
almost as much as Hill’s, and the stunningly recorded low notes
are a hi-fi joy. There’s a funny moment where Kodama misses
out the left-hand chord at the re-introduction of the Merle
bleu in 4:16 but that’s a minor detail, her upper notes
in the Très Lent at 4:32 are delicious, and the
funky left-hand rhythms further on are done superbly. Moving
through books 2-6 and taking Momo Kodama’s recording in isolation,
there are marvellous things to be found all over the place,
and being picky and comparative with an old favourite doesn’t
have to be the whole story. Kodama is empathetic with Messiaen’s
feel for atmosphere, brings out the essential French-ness of
the music’s idiom, while at the same time inhabiting the beauty
and timeless life-and-death struggles of nature in the Catalogue.
Kodama’s performances are of a quality which can and does haunt
the memory, but I do have to say I was confronted at each point
by Peter Hill’s almost miraculous powers in this music. His
recording is still the equivalent of running a good photograph
through a sophisticated sharpening tool on a computer: his playing
brings the colours, myriad effects and sheer emotional mojo
of these birds pouring into your space and your entire being.
Not wanting to bore everyone by making the same point over and
over, I satisfied my sense of symmetry by having a closer look
at the last volume, Book 7. La Buse variable has two
fairly extended passages of seemingly random notes: le Buse
plane en circles ... Kodama takes these somewhat faster
than Hill, which to my mind removes something of the sense of
vast distances and sheer volumes of air. This isn’t a huge point,
but she is also swifter through a number of passages where sonorous
bells seem to ring but don’t seem to get quite enough chance
to swell their sound. These are all minor details in vast swathes
of marvellous pianism, but if I’m being asked to choose for
my desert island then my ultimate alliance still falls with
The opening of Le Traquet rieur is a virtuoso spectacle,
and Kodama is as impressive here as she is throughout the set.
Hill’s 1989 recording has acquired a bit of a mid-range bloom
and isn’t quite as transparent as the earlier disc, and I’m
less inclined to be quite so partisan in my preference. Yes,
it’s all in the playing, but with Kodama as a technical equal
in this piece there are even narrower margins to work with.
The tender phrases of the final Le Courlis cendré always
brings a tear to my eye for some reason, and Kodama hits the
spot with just the right amount of expressive rubato. Paul Kim
is cooler and more objective in general throughout the cycle,
and I prefer Kodama’s warmth and colour in these kinds of moments.
Hill’s perfection in the repeated rising motifs and sheer characterisation
of the birds is a killer blow however, and I find I’m still
under that old spell and, in advertising parlance, can ‘tell
the difference’. He creates the kind of magic which draws Messiaen’s
birds together into endlessly fascinating musical narratives,
rather than a succession of vignettes or events, however wonderful
these can be. Having a listen to Pierre-Laurent Aimard takes
us into yet further realms of mind-expanding Messiaen realism,
and his technical prowess and recorded sound does indeed top
even Peter Hill – but is it birdsong we’re hearing? or PIANO.
I have greatly enjoyed becoming acquainted with Momo Kodama
through her Catalogue d’Oiseaux, and for a SACD listening
experience this is a huge treat for piano fans like myself.
Her playing is technically superb, and her skill in communicating
Messiaen’s vast world of birds and nature is impressive to say
the very least. My preference for Peter Hill is based on a number
of factors more easily expressed by sitting in a room, playing
extracts and looking at the other person with encouragingly
raised eyebrows – quite possibly while that other person wonders
what on earth I’m on about. In other words, please feel free
to try this highly desirable nugget of recorded gold – I seriously
doubt you will be disappointed. You can always have Hill from
the Regis label for very minor financial outlay, but you won’t
have those SACD sonics.