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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Des canyons aux étoiles (1972/74) [100.06]
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

Principal conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski has rebuilt the London Philharmonic Orchestra's reputation; one that had been rather damaged following the tenure of Franz Welser-Möst. Testimony to the orchestra’s excellence has been a number of recordings on the orchestra’s own label established in 2005. These have for the most part been taken from live concerts with both new and archive content. A marvellous recent release is this live 2013 recording under guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) is an interesting choice from a composer with a unique mystical sound-world. It is underpinned by a deeply held religious faith which has been frequently disparaged and often misunderstood. Some twenty or so years after Messiaen’s death it is still a rare event to see one of the Frenchman’s works on a provincial concert/recital programme in the U.K.

In 1970 Messiaen, together with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, were on a concert tour of the USA. During the trip, philanthropist Alice Tully commissioned from him a work to be played by her Musica Aeterna Orchestra at the Lincoln Center, New York on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the United States Declaration of Independence. The commission turned out to be a wonderful chance to explore some of the USA’s greatest and most visually spectacular natural environments namely Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, and Cedar Breaks National Monument. These awe-inspiring and colourful landscapes with their birdlife inspired him to compose Des canyons aux étoiles. A considerable work lasting here a hundred minutes to perform is in twelve separate movements each with a descriptive title and divided into three parts. The instrumentation is unusual employing four soloists (piano, horn, xylorimba and glockenspiel solo), thirteen strings each with a separate part, thirteen woodwind, eight brass and five percussion players with a broad range of instruments including a wind machine and sand machine (geophone) devised by the composer. Messiaen attended the première in 1974 at the Alice Tully Hall and according to the essay in the booklet notes took the sand machine away for safeguarding in his hotel room, holding onto it between performances.

If you want to jump right into the middle of Messiaen’s unique realm which includes the composer’s fixation on birdsong, depictions of mystical skies and atmospheric landscapes combined with striving towards religious awe then Des canyons aux étoiles is the work to have. Under the sensitive direction of Christoph Eschenbach everything is held together well allowing the LPO to communicate with both concentration and clear focus. Especially rewarding is the insightful horn-playing of John Ryan in the changing harmonies of Appel interstellar (Interstellar Call) representing the anguish and salvation of humanity. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this score, disengaged by the numerous pauses. However its grip on the attention can be felt from Part 3 Les Ressuscites et le chant de l'etoile Aldebaran (The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran), a remarkable evocation of the giant orange star Aldebaran together with sections of birdsong and “droplets of water and silken rustlings”. Entrancing and remarkably well performed this standout movement had me musing on the eternal nature of the Universe. I am unable to agree with some adverse comment concerning the sound of Tzimon Barto’s piano particularly in Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin (The White-browed Robin) and Le Moqueur polyglotte (The Mockingbird) which sounded generally satisfactory. On the downside I didn’t enjoy the disappointing effect of the wind machine. Unsure exactly what type of machine was employed, it never sounded like anything other than a synthetic canvas being manually cranked over a rotating cylinder.

The technical team has provided cool, crystal-clear sound which is agreeably balanced. The applause was been taken out but there is just enough audience noise to make it feel live without being off-putting. Messiaen enthusiasts and lovers of twentieth-century music don’t need to hesitate over acquiring this expertly played and recorded release on LPO.

Michael Cookson