Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Complete Works for Solo Piano
Roger Muraro (piano)
rec. 1998-2001, various locations
ACCORD 4812563 [7 CDs + 2 DVDs: 606:41]

Recorded live and in the studio between 1998 and 2001, Roger Muraro’s Messiaen survey has been issued previously in separate volumes. These have also been collected together in a 7 CD box, which my research tells me was released in 2001. This latest compilation combines the box set with two DVDs initially released in 2005 in which Muraro gives us his then latest thoughts on Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus. These recordings have received numerous accolades over the years, including a Diapason d'Or and critical ratings from Le Monde de la Musique and Telérama.

Muraro was born in Lyon in 1959 and started his musical life on the saxophone. Later the piano became prominent and in 1978 he went to study at the Paris Conservatoire. He entered the class of Yvonne Loriod, wife of Olivier Messiaen, so when it comes to the composer’s piano works, he has some claim to a sound pedigree. In 1986 he took fourth prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Since then he has made a speciality of Messiaen’s solo piano compositions, with the composer praising him personally after a performance of the Vingt Regards: "With all my admiration for his dazzling technique, his mastery, his sound quality, his emotion, and, may I make so bold to say, his Faith! Thank you, bravo and my very great affection!" - what better commendation.

Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus are twenty pieces or contemplations on the infant Jesus, beginning with the view of God the Father and ending with the view of the Spirit of Joy. In total the cycle lasts about two hours. They were written for Yvonne Loriod in 1944, who premiered them a year later at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. Muraro possesses the virtuosic skill to meet the work’s technical challenges. Impressive is the visceral intensity with which he brings the music to life, but his close familiarity with the score manifests itself in an instinctive feel for the cut and thrust of the music’s narrative. What he learned from Loriod was attention to detail, and the recording bears testimony to this. Regard du Père sets the scene with a dark veil enveloping it. Regard de l'étoile which follows offers a suitable contrast, both scintillating and effervescent. I’m won over by the energy and rhythmic drive he brings to Regard de l'Esprit de joie. The first part of Première communion de la Vierge is devotional, with the pianist encapsulating its mystical character, a quality he also brings to Regard du silence. I prefer the brighter and more immediate sound of this recording over the two versions I hold – Michel Béroff on EMI Classics and John Ogdon on Decca, but the latter I wouldn’t like to be without.

Three CDs are devoted to Catalogue d'oiseaux, in which the composer reveals his lifelong passion for ornithology. In this seven book cycle the songs of 77 distinct birds are depicted in thirteen movements, lasting almost three hours. The performance was recorded live by Radio France, and its success is registered in the enthusiastic applause of the audience. As such, I find in it a tad more thrill and spontaneity than in my Anatol Ugorski set on DG. Imaginative and inventive, the music demands an assured and rock-solid technique, a broad tonal palette and a sense of imagination. Muraro has all of these in abundance, and he brushstrokes these sound paintings with sensitivity and poetic insight. Birds, and the landscapes they inhabit, are all tangibly etched in this finely sculpted reading.

The composer was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire when he composed his Huit Préludes in 1929, and each is allocated an individual name. Muraro probes the mood, character and colour of each prelude. Most of all he translates the sense of sadness and loss that lies within; his mother had died two years previously. This melancholy is most notable in Bells of anguish and tears of farewell, and to a lesser extent in Song of ecstasy in a sad landscape. Fast forward to 1970 and we have Messiaen’s La fauvette des jardins based on the song of the garden warbler, though also featuring eighteen other birds. The piece is imaginatively set in the Dauphiny mountains of Isère during a mid-summer night and the following day. Muraro achieves some breathtaking sonorities.

Throughout the remainder of the set the music is informed by detail, imagination and rarefied expressiveness. Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux and Quatre Etudes de rythme were both recorded live by Radio France, and have that added spark of freshness.

For those approaching the complexities of the Vingt Regards for the first time DVD 1, a complete visual performance, will help. The venue is L’église de La Grave, situated south-east of Lyon. Acoustically favourable, its intimacy and religious ambience seems particularly apposite. The sound quality is superb, allowing the complex lines of the music to emerge with clarity and definition. Muraro’s pointing up of the intricacies that lie within is sure proof that he knows this music inside out. His stamina and strength are prodigious, and throughout the performance there’s a real feel of the music evolving. Direction can’t be faulted, with camera angles judiciously chosen and never seeming intrusive or distracting. Close-ups of the Muraro’s hands will be of interest to pianists.

In DVD 2 Muraro discusses how he came to this music through Yvonne Loriod, as well as sharing some interesting observations on the composer and his wife. Whilst the composer gave advice in more general terms, Loriod’s approach was one of precision, offering guidance on fingering, pedal markings, dynamics and rhythm. Throughout we are given illustrative excerpts from DVD 1. There are also some revealing observations on how Messiaen notated birdsong. Filmed in the environs of the composer’s home, the stunning vistas constitute a visual feast. I would advise potential purchasers to view DVD 2 first. I didn’t, unfortunately, but I would have benefited more by doing so, getting a feel for the background to the music.

The set is complemented by a beautifully produced 76 page booklet. In addition to a comprehensive track-listing, there is a chronological survey of the music, which I found useful. Audio quality is first class, and the venues chosen are conducive to highlighting the detail and wide range of tonal colour this music demands. For anyone wanting the complete solo works, corralled together, you couldn’t get better than this.
Stephen Greenbank
CD 1 [65:37]
Huit Préludes (1928-1929)
La Fauvette des Jardins (1970)

CD 2 [68:06]
Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux (1985)
Quatre Etudes de rythme (1949-1950)
Cantéyodjayâ (1949)
Rondeau (1943)
Fantaisie burlesque (1932)
Prélude pour piano (1964)
Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935)

CDs 3-4 [51:44 + 67:11]
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944)

CDs 5-7 [60:09 + 45:10 + 44:44]
Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958)

DVD 1 [119:00]
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

DVD 2 [85:00]
Un regard sur Olivier Messiaen ... avec Roger Muraro
4 regards sur ... Yvonne Loriod
Par lui Tout a été fait
l’Opus 1
Le soncouleur

Picture format: NTSC
Sound format: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: French, English


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