Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964)* [32:31]
Le tombeau resplendissant (1931) [18:13]
Hymne (1932) [15:11]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. 16 June 2008* and 29-30 October 2010, Lyon Auditorium, Lyon, France
NAXOS 8.572714 [65:55]
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 them.
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 scrawny here.
I just can’t make up my mind about this Märkl /Lyon partnership. Their Debussy box has some fine things in it - see review - but otherwise it’s terribly uneven. At least it has a few nuggets; there are none here.
Crude and shapeless; avoid.
Dan Morgan

Crude and shapeless; avoid.