We are fortunate to have so many first-rate recordings of Messiaen’s
orchestral music, directed by the likes of Antal Dorati, André
Previn, Myung-Whun Chung, Pierre Boulez and David Porcelijn.
A recent addition to the list is Juanjo Mena, whose fine Turangalîla-symphonie
sets new standards for the piece (review).
I have long admired Boulez’s DG recording of Et exspecto
- my reference here - but since I’ve touched on Messiaen’s
other large-scale works I’d urge newcomers to hear two
quite remarkable recordings: Dorati’s La Transfiguration
de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Decca) and Porcelijn’s
Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà… (ABC
Classics). Really, no Messiaen collection is complete without
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, a government commission
to commemorate the dead of two world wars, may look like a requiem
but it isn’t. Instead Messiaen chose to focus on that
central tenet of Christianity, redemption through resurrection.
Scored for wind, brass and percussion - including an array of
gongs - it has a block-like structure that can so easily seem
discrete or dull. Indeed, Märkl’s reading might just
qualify on both counts; his first movement is very ponderous
- turgid, even - and there’s absolutely no sense of the
purgatorial pit. The range of sonorities one hears on the Boulez
disc - the Cleveland players are in fine fettle - is just astonishing,
the abyssal night pierced by stars of light.
Put another way, Boulez holds out the promise of redemption
and release; it seems Märkl doesn’t. It’s such
a complex and competing mixture of timbres that a top-notch
recording is de rigueur; Boulez gets one, Märkl
doesn’t. Even more important is that sense of musical
and spiritual progression; Boulez finds it, Märkl doesn’t.
Sadly, the rest of this Lyon performance is just as earthbound.
In the second movement, with its highly symbolic rhythms and
intervals, Boulez is forensically detailed but his reading never
sounds bleached. Also, his percussionists are subtle and sophisticated,
whereas Märkl’s - dry and deprived of depth or decay
- sound rough and peremptory.
In the central movement, with its trade-mark bird calls and
percussive crescendi, Märkl strikes me as perfunctory;
moreover, the silvery bells are almost inaudible, while the
kitchen clatter of those climaxes is simply jarring. So is there
any hope of redemption, for this performance at least? Well,
the fourth movement is slightly more appealing, but ultimately
it’s too discrete to really cohere or convince. As for
Messiaen’s series of gong smashes - surely a precursor
to the recurring passages in La Transfiguration - they
seem cntirely random. Oh, and we haven’t mentioned ecstasy,
another key ingredient in this music; yes, there’s a hint
of it in Märkl’s finale, but it’s Boulez who
finds genuine radiance and rapture at this point.
Clearly not a promising start to this collection, and one that
hardly augurs well for the much earlier Le tombeau resplendissant
and Hymne. Chung (DG) is propulsive and colourful in
the former, the Paris players far more engaged and animated
than their cousins down south. And that’s precisely where
this performance is headed; Märkl’s unvaried pounding
and that airless acoustic do this piece no favours. Chung’s
account of Hymne - given its original title Hymne
au Saint-Sacrement - isn’t quite so successful, and
Märkl does redeem himself with a reading of unexpected
passion and sinew. That said, it doesn’t sound much like
Messiaen; also, some listeners may find the Lyon strings a tad
I just can’t make up my mind about this Märkl /Lyon
partnership. Their Debussy box has some fine things in it -
- but otherwise it’s terribly uneven. At least it has
a few nuggets; there are none here.
Crude and shapeless; avoid.
review by Paul Corfield Godfrey