Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
En blanc et noir (1915) [15:14]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Visions de l'Amen (1943) [47:26]
Ralph van Raat (Piano I), Håkon Austbø (Piano II)
rec. 6-8 July 2010, Haitinkzaal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
NAXOS 8.572472 [62:39]

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.
Dan Morgan

Impressive, well-presented performances; just a little short on fervour and insight.