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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Des canyons aux étoiles (From the canyons to the stars) (1972-1974)
Tzimon Barto (piano); John Ryan (horn); Andrew Barclay (xylorimba); Erika Öhman (glockenspiel)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. live, 2 November 2013, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included

Commissioned to celebrate the bicentenary of America’s Declaration of Independence Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles is one of a trio of late, great works that includes his opera Saint-François d'Assise (1975) and the orchestral Éclairs sur l'au-delà … (1988-1992). In between he composed Livre du Saint Sacrement for organ (1984), the UK premiere of which I was privileged to attend. Jennifer Bate, well known for her advocacy of Messiaen’s organ works, was as splendid as ever; indeed, that one event deepened – nay, cemented – my affection and respect for this composer’s unique oeuvre.

Thirty years on and we’re back at the refurbished Festival Hall with Des canyons aux étoiles. I was a little surprised to see Christoph Eschenbach at the helm, for he’s not a conductor I associate with this repertoire. Myung-Whun Chung, though, is steeped in this music, all of which is available in a 32-CD box from DG (review). Up until now his recording of Canyons – much praised by Hubert Culot back in 2003 – has been my preferred version. While Esa-Pekka Salonen on CBS/Sony (review) is blessed with a fine pianist, the Messiaen specialist Paul Crossley, I just don’t find this conductor terribly engaging at the best of times. As a result I've excluded him from my list of comparative versions.

Those two recordings of Canyons have dominated the catalogue for a while now, although one shouldn’t overlook Sylvain Cambreling’s 2007 account for Hänssler, only available as part of an 8-CD traversal of Messiaen’s complete orchestral music (CD93.225). He directs the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, whose Mahler cycle with Michael Gielen is one of the finest in the catalogue. Although Cambreling’s account of the Berlioz Requiem was very disappointing his Messiaen is anything but.

The tripartite Des canyons aux étoiles is actually scored for fairly modest forces, among them the usual array of percussion instruments, a wind machine and Messiaen’s own invention, the geophone. There are four soloists – horn, piano, xylorimba and glockenspiel – who distinguish themselves in all three of the recordings under consideration here. Eschenbach’s is the only live account, but there's no applause at the end and you’d never know there was an audience. The recording is detailed and spacious, and the LPO play with a seamless concentration that can’t fail to impress.

Chung’s fine-spun Bastille orchestra are even more communicative; they respond with a rapt intensity that’s utterly right in a slow but profoundly moving odyssey such as this. The DG recording is forensic without being bright or sterile and instrumental timbres are seldom less than ravishing. The LPO sound is very good too, and there’s a wonderful sense of atmosphere throughout. That said, it’s Chung and Cambreling who convey something deeper – call it spirituality if you must – which takes the music-making to another plane entirely.

That’s especially true of Cambreling and his German band, who cast a potent spell that’s sustained from the first note to the last. The Hänssler recording is remarkably sophisticated, which ensures that the composer’s beloved birds are heard at their vibrant best; also, instrumental decay – a vital part of this music – is thrillingly caught. As if that weren't accolade enough Messiaen's glorious epiphanies emerge with just the right sense of scale and emphasis. Eschenbach doesn’t disappoint either, but for sheer frisson the two studio recordings are hard to beat. In all three versions the more lurid music of Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks is sensitively handled, with none of the unsettling shriek and fart one hears in Turangalîla, for instance.

My affection for Chung’s recording is undiminished, even if there’s a hint of stasis at times. Eschenbach certainly manages to keep the narrative thread intact, but his calm, clear-eyed approach is not as penetrating, as revelatory, as I'd like. Still, I’m delighted to add his Canyons to my hallowed stash, for it’s very accomplished indeed. Throw in good liner-notes by Nigel Simeone and you have a well-presented package. Incidentally, while the 24-bit files are excellent those who opt for the 16-bit alternative won't be disappointed.

If I had to choose just one recording of this radiant masterwork it would have to be Cambreling’s; normally I’d hesitate to use the word definitive, but such are the wonders of his performance that nothing else will do. The drawback is that it’s only available as part of that 8-CD set. Actually that needn’t be a problem, for it’s the perfect excuse to buy the well-priced box and revel in all its riches.

Eschenbach’s keen and sympathetic Canyons is well worth hearing; Cambreling’s is the one to take to your desert island, though.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Michael Cookson