Good programming this, as Messiaen’s musical language owes much
to the harmonic adventurism of his illustrious compatriot; also,
both works were written in tempore belli, with all
the stress and strain that imposes on artistic endeavour. Not
only that, En blanc et noir and Visions de l’Amen
are high rocks of the two-piano repertoire, demanding pianists
of some virtuosity and stamina. The Norwegian pianist Håkon
Austbø has already recorded a number of Messiaen discs for Naxos,
while his Dutch counterpart, Ralph van Raat, impressed me greatly
with his scintillating rendition of Rzewski’s The People
United Shall Never Be Defeated! (Naxos 8.559360).
The three-part En blanc et noir certainly gets an effervescent
outing here. The piano sound – not one of Naxos’s strong suits
– is perfectly acceptable, combining detail and heft; even better,
it’s free of the jangle that’s muted my enjoyment of some recent
releases. Musically though this Debussy is thoughtfully presented
and sensibly scaled, offering moments of spontaneity and wit.
The more sombre second part is particularly successful, its
lyrical seam carefully worked and phrases artfully shaped. As
for the skittish Scherzando, it’s played with plenty of sparkle
and an abiding sense of fun. Altogether a most pleasing performance,
even if it doesn’t efface memories of Martha Argerich and Steven
Kovacevich, last seen on a Philips twofer.
There’s even more competition in the Messiaen, not least from
the composer and his wife Yvonne Loriod, available as part of
an EMI set. More recently we’ve been blessed with a magnificent
performance from Steven Osborne and Martin Roscoe (Hyperion).
The latter has formidable weight and sometimes intimidating
grandeur, helped in no small measure by a recording of considerable
sophistication and reach. Osborne’s Vingt regards –
also on Hyperion – is another must-have for Messiaen addicts.
First impressions of the Naxos disc are quite favourable; van
Raat and Austbø are rather less monumental, emphasising ecstasy
rather than weight in Amen de la création.
That said, listening to these two recordings side by side I’m
struck by how much more light and shade Osborne and Roscoe find
in this unfurling score. Rhythmically they’re more inventive
too, especially in Amen des étoiles, where they bring
out the music’s pulsing, pointillist elements. That’s not to
say the Naxos pair aren’t impressive, just that Osborne and
Roscoe paint a more complete – and compelling – canvas. Amen
de l’agonie de Jésus is a case in point; while van Raat
and Austbø capture the alternating spike and spirituality of
this music their rivals find a degree of nobility – stoicism,
even – that’s very moving indeed.
Honours are more evenly divided in Amen du désir –
the Naxos pair are at their most radiant and penetrating here
– while Osborne and Roscoe are cooler and more rarefied in Amen
des anges, the bright, jewelled quality of Messiaen’s writing
superbly caught. That said, neither recording is remotely fatiguing,
van Raat and Austbø’s performance growing in stature as it progresses.
The final sections – Amen du jugement and Amen
de la consommation – insist on declamatory weight and a
growing aura of apotheosis, both of which are present in this
Naxos account; but just listen to Osborne and Roscoe and one
hears something more, a deepening sense of transfiguration that
builds inexorably towards its appointed end.
While van Raat and Austbø unearth more ecstasy at the outset
it’s Osborne and Roscoe who triumph at the close; indeed, it
would be hard to imagine that palpable air of joy or thunderous
transcendence better done than it is here. Still, the Naxos
pair have many strengths and virtues; indeed, it’s a measure
of their success that I’d not want to part with either of these
discs. Fillers may be a deal-breaker though, the Hyperion CD
offering a fine all-Messiaen programme. Nevertheless, this newcomer
has certainly piqued my interest in Austbø’s other recordings
in the series, which I hope to audition soon.
Impressive, well-presented performances; just a little short
on fervour and insight.