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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Des canyons aux étoiles (1971-74) [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

Des canyons aux étoiles (‘From the Canyons to the Stars’) is one of Messiaen’s most astonishingly original and inventive orchestral scores. It was commissioned in 1970 by Mrs Alice Tully to celebrate the forthcoming bicentennial of the USA and received its first performance in the New York concert hall that is named after Mrs Tully in 1974.

I think it would be fair to say that it hasn’t quite ‘caught on’ to the extent that the Turangalîla-Symphonie has done, despite the fact that the forces for which Des canyons is scored are smaller. Possibly part of the reason is that the musical language of Des canyons, whilst still accessible, is not always as sensuous as that of Turangalîla and it’s often more demanding of the listener.

I suspect that the main reason, however, is the prodigious difficulties faced by the players. I believe that Messiaen ‘only’ used 43 players in this score but what a concert promoter might save on engagement fees would be more than made up for by rehearsal costs. Instead of the full string section required for Turangalîla just 13 players are specified for Des canyons but they all have independent parts. The score also calls for quadruple woodwind, triple brass and a vast array of tuned and un-tuned percussion, the percussion roster including demanding solo parts for xylorimba and glockenspiel. The percussion section includes two highly exotic additions: an éoliphone – wind machine – and a geophone – sand machine. If all this were not enough the score includes not only a virtuoso solo piano part – written for Yvonne Loriod, naturally – but also a solo horn part of prodigious difficulty. No wonder that performances are fairly rare. The performance preserved here was a concert that was part of the year-long festival of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise on London’s South Bank; it was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Mark Berry.

Though live performances may be fairly rare events the work has been recorded several times. I know it through the 1988 CBS Sony recording by the London Sinfonietta and Esa-Pekka Salonen on which Paul Crossley plays the piano (review). I don’t think that typically analytical Salonen recording is available any more. I also have a recording conducted by Marius Constant, which is included in Warner Classic’s large Messiaen Edition box. Constant has authority in this work: for one thing he has Yvonne Loriod as his pianist and he conducted the work’s European premiere in 1975 (which is why I’m not sure that Warner are correct in giving a recording date of 1973, the year before the first performance of the score!) I’ve not heard the recording by Sylvain Cambreling of which Dan Morgan has spoken so highly (review). There is also a version by Myung-Whun Chung, which I’ve not heard. That’s available in a large Messiaen box from DG (review) and I think you may still be able to acquire it separately. If so, it’s the only single disc competition of which I know that this new Eschenbach release faces.

In response to Mrs Tully’s commission Messiaen decided to celebrate some of the natural wonders – landscape and avian – of the USA and his imagination was fired in particular by seeing pictures of some of the majestic and immense natural features of Utah, which he then visited in 1972. The resulting score is a hymn to nature and to God. In a note accompanying the Constant recording and quoted by Nigel Simeone in his excellent note for this Eschenbach release Messiaen said that the piece depicts:

“…ascending from the canyons to the stars – and higher, to the resurrected in Paradise – in order to glorify God in all his creation… Consequently, it is first of all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation. It is also a geological and astronomical work; a work of sound colours, where all the colours of the rainbow revolve around the blue of the steller’s jay and the red of Bryce Canyon.”

Despite the religious impetus behind the work I don’t think that the listener has to be a believer in order to respond to and be thrilled by this often audacious score. As so often in Messiaen’s output birdsong is used prolifically. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that birdsong is only absent from one movement, the horn solo ‘Appel interstellaire’. Messiaen’s decision to use a small number of strings but large contingents of woodwind, brass and percussion means that page after page of the score is permeated by bright primary colours. I’ve never been to Utah but recalling a visit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona I remember vividly the amazing blue sly and the rich – and varied – red colours of the landscape. It seems to me that Messiaen has translated those brilliant colours – and much else – into music in this score.

There are two movements for piano solo. One depicts the songs of the birds of the Oriole family. The other, which is much longer, offers a musical portrait of the USA’s most famous bird, the mockingbird. Both are played with jaw-dropping virtuosity – and great vitality colour and poetry – by Tzimon Barto. John Ryan, the LPO’s principal horn similarly inspires admiration for his prodigious rendition of the ‘Appel interstellaire’.

There’s some amazing music in this score and Messiaen’s resourcefulness and sense of musical colour is a matter of wonder. The seventh movement, which is a depiction of Bryce Canyon and the bird, the steller’s jay, that is found there is a movement of vibrant colour, great majesty and, in certain episodes, of pulsating, dancing vitality. The immense brass chorales which Messiaen uses to portray the majesty of the landscape convey the rugged grandeur of the landscape superbly while the steller’s jay, with his brilliant blue plumage, flashes across the musical landscape. From time to time the music lands on richly augmented major chords until the movement concludes with a huge, shimmering chord. This movement is a fantastic piece of musical invention – the brass and percussion sonorities are often amazing – and it’s extremely well done here.

The eighth movement is entitled ‘Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran’ (‘The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran’). The star in question is, Messiaen explains, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus and he says that in this movement “the stars sing”. The piece is a long, devoted slow movement in which the strings carry the burden of the musical argument, their hushed music richly ornamented with gentle birdsong arabesques and flickers of twinkling star light. The music is radiant and serene. Eschenbach’s approach to it is daring. He’s significantly more expansive than either Salonen or Constant. Constant takes 9:28 while in Salonen’s hands the movement lasts a mere 8:05. Eschenbach, however, takes 11:57. That’s risky and might not come off under studio conditions but here, in a live performance, he generates a marvellous, rapt atmosphere.

The concluding movement, ‘Zion Park et la Cité Céleste’ is another of Messiaen’s majestic, bird-populated aural landscapes. All manner of birds native to the USA are heard carolling while the grandeur of the scene is conveyed especially by means of a brass chorale, which the composer describes as “full of light and majesty”. The music makes its steady, visionary way, decorated by the bird songs, until we reach the culmination of over 1 ½ hours of music. Then, in Messiaen’s words “With an A major chord from the strings, as immutable as eternity, the chiming bells add their resonance to the final joy.”

This is a remarkable score, containing vivid and visionary music. There may be some small inaccuracies in this live performance but I doubt that anyone other than the most acute listener, armed with a score, will notice. The playing of both the named soloists and the rest of the ensemble is astonishingly accomplished. The recorded sound is very good: you can hear an abundance of filigree detail while Messiaen’s immense loud sonorities register with suitable impact. Nigel Simeone’s notes are succinct and expert.

This is a brave choice of repertoire for the LPO to issue on their own label and I hope that their enterprise is rewarded.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson, Michael Cookson & Dan Morgan



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