Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58)
i Le chocard des alpes [9:01]
ii Le loriot [8:12]
iii Le merle bleu [13:11]
iv Le traquet stapazin [16:04]
v La chouette hulotte [8:22]
vi L'alouette lulu [7:53]
vii La rousserolle effarvatte [30:41]
viii L'alouette calandrelle [5:26]
ix La bouscarle [12:32]
x Le merle de roche [17:46]
xi La buse variable [10:35]
xii Le traquet rieur [10:34]
Momo Kodama (piano)
rec. 24-26 February and 16-18 April 2009, Omitamashi Shiki Bunkakan Minole, Ibaraki
TRITON/OCTAVIA RECORDS OVCT-0060 [3 CDs: 63:04 + 48:49 + 46:45]
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 Paul 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 going on.
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 Peter Hill.
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.
Awe-inspiring audiophile sonics, and only just short of being Messiaen nirvana.