There is really only one way to approach Messiaen in his apocalyptic moods: to play the music with all the overblown and blatant force that you can muster. Märkl certainly does that, but his speeds in Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
are really extraordinarily slow. Serge Baudo, who conducted the first performance in the presence of the composer and presumably with his approbation, recorded the work for EMI four years later, and in every movement of this suite for massive wind and metallic percussion orchestra he is appreciably quicker than Märkl is here. In fact Märkl takes nearly ten minutes longer overall than Baudo. In the opening Des profundeurs de l’abime
he takes 4.26 to play a movement than Baudo despatched in 2.40 – that is, he takes nearly twice as long. Pierre Boulez made a recording - his first ever for CBS, in horribly dry sound - at about the same time as Baudo. There he takes 3.54 over the movement. When he came back to re-record the work with the Cleveland Orchestra he reduced that timing by nearly a minute. Bernard Haitink takes just 3.05. The problem is that the music simply falls apart at Märkl’s slow speed, and one finds oneself waiting desperately for the next event to happen. The recording is nicely resonant, and has plenty of presence but the ponderous tempi make this version simply bizarre. Märkl has given us some superb recordings in recent years, and his preference for sometimes extremely slow speeds – possibly derived from Celibidache, with whom he studied – can frequently pay dividends. Here the music simply becomes moribund. The gong-strokes at around 5.00 in the fourth movement ring out nicely, but one seems to wait for an eternity before the next one sounds. Märkl takes over a minute and a half longer over this movement than Baudo did.
The two other works on the disc are much earlier pieces for full symphony orchestra, and in Le tombeau resplendissant
Märkl is again very slow. The opening lacks excitement at this pace. There do not appear to have been any recordings of this piece during Messiaen’s lifetime, but Myung-Wha Chung on DG takes 15.22 over a work that Märkl expands by nearly three minutes. The slightly later Hymne
, also known as the Hymne au Saint-Sacrement
, was given by Marius Constant, in a 1977 recording made during Messiaen’s lifetime (in pretty dismal sound), which only took 14.04; Märkl (much better recorded) takes over a minute longer, but is within tolerable limits. Chung’s recording on DG is fairly close to Märkl in terms of tempo. These early Messiaen pieces are perhaps more romantic in style than his later works, but the composer’s fingerprints are recognisable throughout.
These recordings, then, give us fine and resplendently recorded performances, but the tempos throughout portray Messiaen as a sleep-walking purveyor of hypnotic and grandiose visions. If this is the way you see Messiaen, then fine but the evidence is that the composer himself never intended this music to be given this sort of treatment. When it is given at this extended length, it becomes bloated and inflated in a way that does Messiaen no favours at all.
Paul Corfield Godfrey