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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
rec. 2017, Saal 1, Funkhaus, Nalepastrasse, Berlin
Includes Bonus DVD
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
PENTATONE PTC5186670 SACD [3 SACDs: 152:51]

Pierre-Laurent Aimard has recorded some of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux (review) before on Deutsche Grammophon, but with this first recording after signing exclusively to Pentatone we now have the complete cycle. Aimard had close ties both with Messiaen and his pianist wife Yvonne Loriod, for whom the Catalogue was written, and so you can be confident that this recording has plenty of authenticity behind the virtuoso skill on offer.

These superbly produced SACDs are housed in colourful cardboard sleeves in a sturdy box, and there’s also the sweet little surprise of a feather or two inside, to put us in an ornithological frame of mind. The booklet is also nicely presented with a personal statement from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, useful notes, and the reproduction of Messiaen’s own descriptive preface texts published with the Alphonse Leduc scores. These describe not only the birds that populate the Catalogue, but also the time of day, landscape, fall of light and atmosphere evoked by the music. Messiaen himself was a superb communicator when it came to these magical captured moments, and there could hardly be any better way of introducing each piece in terms of the written word. Messiaen’s own summing-up of the Catalogue was an attempt “to render exactly the typical birdsong of a region, surrounded by its neighbours from the same habitat, as well as the form of song at different hours of the day and night.” The remarkable detail preserved in his notebooks is evidence of a meticulous method, but even while he called these studies on the sounds of nature a “rédaction musicale” this collection is by no means a dry academic exercise or mechanical reproduction of French provincial birdsong.

It almost goes without saying that these are tremendous performances, and that this is a recording to be acquired and enjoyed at length. Aimard plays with absolute control and considerable impact, punching Messiaen’s accents and delivering ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ with the rugged rocks above which Le Chocard des Alpes “tours the landscape, flying over the precipices.” This is followed by the fabulously atmospheric Le Loriot, its song “fluid and gilded, like the laughing of a foreign prince… full of light and rainbows, full of Leonardo da Vinci smiles.” Aimard has plenty of poetry to go along with the barbed virtuosity demanded in many of these pieces, and I found myself entirely absorbed throughout – even catching little hints of Satie in which I’d only previously heard occasional flavour of Debussy.

I’d maxed out my library card at the time of writing so could only borrow volume 3 of the Catalogue for a little detailed score following. La Chouette Hulotte is one of the more ‘difficult’ of these pieces, with the stabbing, seemingly atonal notes of its opening, each given a different dynamic, the whole being associated with fear and dread in the dead of night for Messiaen. Aimard hits hard and makes no attempt to soften this pill, hitting some stonking low notes but also distracting us here and there with some audible groans. This is powerful stuff, and the rich cadences and nocturnal calm of L'Alouette lulu comes as welcome relief. Looking at the dynamics, there are some moments when you think, ‘is this really P?’, but even with these there is well-considered method at work, leaving space for even quieter dynamics elsewhere, or giving just a little added weight to allow resonances to carry as far as they are needed.

There are numerous alternative complete recordings of the Catalogue d’oiseaux around these days, many adding something extra to pad out the space left on a 3 disc set. Håkon Austbø is impressive on the Naxos label but to my ears doesn’t have quite the poetry of some others, though certainly preferable to the sometimes perversely noisy Anatol Ugorski on Deutsche Grammophon. Roger Muraro has recorded Messiaen’s complete piano music on the Accord label (review), and though his live recording is a remarkable achievement there are some annoying audience coughs and a few slips and wild moments which put it out of the running for a main choice. Comparing Momo Kadama on the Triton label (review) with Peter Hill on the Regis label I remained in favour of the latter, though Kadama’s SACD sound puts it into more direct competition with Aimard’s set. I still admire rather than love Kadama’s Messiaen, again – impressed with the pianism rather than moved by these rich portraits of nature filtered through an inimitable imagination. I still have an affection for Paul Kim on the Centaur label (review), and would still highly recommend his complete Messiaen edition. The piano sound is a little thinner than some and even a bit twangy with some notes, but as a musical experience it has a tremendous amount to offer.

Returning to Peter Hill’s superlative set reminded me of his remarkable skill in shading the dynamics, creating drama within and at the ends of phrases through acute observation of Messiaen’s markings, and summoning the extremes of both fantastically controlled fever-pitch excitement and icy cool atmosphere at every micro-turn in each score. For me, each newcomer has had to measure up to this standard, and with Pierre-Laurent Aimard I finally feel we’ve achieved parity. There’s always a risk of becoming too comfortable and affectionate with old favourite recordings but Peter Hill’s set, originally on the Unicorn-Kanchana label, has to my mind yet to be beaten. Can we crown Pierre-Laurent Aimard the new Catalogue d’oiseaux champion? Well, if we’re allowed to call a draw then that would be my conclusion. There is a special character in Peter Hill’s playing that somehow goes beyond the instrument and into evocations that tingle and tease the imagination. Aimard does this as well but Hill has a slightly less extrovert manner, in his way leaving a little more left in the piano and just enough for us to fill in for ourselves. Aimard is certainly as brilliant, and at certain points is more spectacular, but the ‘wow!’ moments perhaps edge us more into Aimard’s spaces, and not quite so much into our own. This is all very marginal and subjective of course, and you could probably just as easily turn any such argument on its head if you were to discover Aimard first and then come across Hill after some years of appreciation. Hill does have the advantage of being entirely quiet vocally, where with Aimard there are occasional moments; around 8 minutes into La Rousserolle Effarvatte for instance, where it sounds a little as if he is recording in a field of cows. We can let this pass however, and what delights me is that there is now finally another Catalogue d’oiseaux that isn’t Peter Hill, but which I would gladly take to my desert island without feeling I’m missing some essence of Messiaen.

As if gorgeous presentation and a nicely documented booklet weren’t enough, we’re also treated to a bonus DVD in which Pierre-Laurent Aimard introduces each piece and plays essential elements from each, giving descriptions as we go along. There is also substantial talk on the work in general and further background on Messiaen, all of this for some reason filmed with a wobbly hand-held camera but enlightening nevertheless. There is a French and English version of this, and German subtitles as a third option. For me, the whole experience of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux can be summed up in one word, ‘intoxicating’. Now honestly count how many recordings in your collection to which you can apply that term…

Dominy Clements

CD 1
1er Livre
i Le Chocard des Alpes [9:27]
ii Le Loriot [8:06]
iii Le Merle bleu [12:59]
2e Livre
iv Le Traquet Stapazin [14:05]
3e Livre
v La Chouette Hulotte [7:54]
vi L'Alouette lulu [6:47]
4e Livre
vii La Rousserolle Effarvatte [31:37]
CD 3
5e Livre
viii L'Alouette Calandrelle [5:12]
ix La Bouscarle [10:25]
6e Livre
x Le Merle de roche [17:24]
7e Livre
xi La Buse variable [9:41]
xii Le Traquet rieur [7:50]
xiii Le Courlis cendré [9:15]

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