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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Orchestral Works
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. 1999-2008
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet does not include sung texts
SWR MUSIC SWR19421CD [8 CDs: 542:14]

This box, originally released by Hänssler a decade ago, came to my attention much later, at which point I started a review, which I then shelved. Now that SWR Music have repackaged the set, I downloaded it from the distributor’s website, dusted off my unfinished Word file and got to work. It’s worth noting this isn’t a complete survey of Messiaen’s orchestral music. That accolade belongs to a 10-disc ‘Collector’s Edition’ from Deutsche Grammophon, culled from a much larger box that Patrick Waller welcomed back in 2009.

The beauty of this SWR collection is that it features just one ensemble and conductor, whereas the DG one is a multiple effort, spearheaded by Myung-Whun Chung in Paris and Pierre Boulez in Cleveland. The latter set is my key comparative here, although I’ve roped in other versions of specific works as well. I must confess, my first encounter with Sylvain Cambreling and the Baden-Baden orchestra – in the Berlioz Requiem – was not auspicious, although it soon became clear their Messiaen was rather more interesting. Otherwise, I’m very fond of this band, whose Michael Gielen Mahler cycle is still one of the best available.

And since I’m already in the confessional, I must bare my soul and say that while I admire much of Messiaen’s oeuvre, the orchestral works that precede the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948) are not among my favourites. By contrast, the early organ works – La Nativité du Seigneur in particular – are among the finest things he ever wrote. Helpfully, the Hänssler/SWR sets are arranged in chronological order, so CD1 contains three pieces from the 1930s: Les offrandes oubliées, L'Ascension and Poèmes pour Mi. The second and third were originally written for organ solo and soprano and piano respectively.

Cambreling’s Les offrandes is more robust than revealing, the playing solid and the sound vivid. Chung and his Bastille forces, silkily recorded, are more dramatic, the orchestral plosions genuinely arresting. But it’s his immense subtlety, his masterly control of colour and dynamics, that hands him the palm here. And while Cambreling’s L’Ascension is admirably clear-eyed, it’s Chung who provides a truly hypnotic/ecstatic narrative and signals, very clearly, the direction Messiaen’s music would take in the years ahead.

I’m not sure why Cambreling chose Yvonne Naef, a mezzo, for the Poèmes, although, admittedly, it’s the nature of the voice and how it’s used that really matters. Again, I yearned for greater contrast, not to mention more feeling and insight. Also, the SWR recording, which is adequate, is no match for the one DG provided for soprano Françoise Pollet and the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez. Goodness, what operatically intense singing this is, the conductor’s meticulous style perfectly complemented by the soloist’s expressive warmth and general character.

Such explicit side-by-side comparisons tend to magnify the strengths and weaknesses of the performances under review. And so it is on this disc, where the otherwise competent Cambreling must yield to Chung and Boulez in terms of performance and sound. Interestingly, A/B listening points up Chung’s consistently thoughtful approach to Messiaen’s music; Boulez, electric in the Poèmes, is perhaps more variable. Of course, this is only the first CD, so there’s ample time for Cambreling to improve on his disappointing opener.

Orchestrally, Messiaen hit his stride with the ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie, on CD2. This mystico-spiritual epic gets a briskly compelling performance here, well controlled and cleanly articulated. Indeed, Cambreling, aided by a superb recording, ensures every tic and twitch is faithfully rendered. The quiet, contemplative movements are very well managed. Also, the playing is excellent, that of pianist Roger Muraro and Valérie Hartmann Claverie (ondes martenot) especially so. Any caveats? Some odd balances, perhaps, but nothing else. A keeper, this.

Chung’s version, recorded nearly two decades earlier, still sounds pretty good. It also has the distinct advantage of Yvonne Loriod on piano and her sister, Jeanne, on the ondes. Chung is less febrile than Cambreling, and there isn’t as much fine detail, yet he brings a refinement to the piece that some listeners may prefer. As expected, the Loriods add a touch of magic to the proceedings. But, whatever your preference, Chung and Cambreling both make a clear case for this odd but uniquely compelling masterpiece.

Those who may be interested in Turangalîla on its own are spoilt for choice. High on my list of favourite versions, and the one I heard first, is André Previn’s, with the LSO, recorded for EMI in 1975. True, Messiaen revised the score in 1990, but that hardly signifies when the playing is as committed – and the performance as passionate – as this. (It sounds even better on the high-res remaster, issued on DVD-A a while back.) But, for something much earthier you must seek out Juanjo Mena’s Bergen Phil performance, on Hyperion. Hugely rewarding and spectacularly recorded, this was one of my top picks for 2012.

CD3 starts with Réveil des oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques, which celebrate the composer’s love of birds and bird song. Muraro gives bold accounts of both works, an effect amplified by the close piano sound. The treble is a tad fierce, too, especially in the dawn chorus. No such qualms about the DG versions, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jean-Yves Thibaudet respectively. Both are better balanced and, best of all, they’re refined and evocative. In rapt attendance are Boulez/Cleveland (Aimard) and the Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly (Thibaudet).

The third work on that disc is the seven-movement Chronochromie, which gets a commendably clear and precise performance here. Cambreling really brings out Messiaen’s distinctive sonorities, helped in no small measure by a full, very detailed and atmospheric recording. I was not a fan of Boulez’s DG version, which I first heard on a standalone CD. Perhaps, paradoxically, it’s just too precise, although the Clevelanders are formidable when it comes to discipline and attack. Cambreling’s orchestra may not be in that league, but then their performance has a vitality and interest that their US rivals can’t match.

CD4 opens with a powerful, darkly sonorous performance of the five-movement Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The recording, made in 2008, is very impressive, as is the playing. And while I didn’t warm to Boulez in Chronochromie, his Cleveland account of Et exspecto is another matter entirely. Has the Dies irae ever sounded so terrifying, or those bells and pashed gongs ever felt so terrifically present? Moreover, it’s magnificently paced and structured, those ascending ecstasies simply glorious. Surely one of Boulez’s very best Messiaen recordings.

The rest of that disc, and all of CD5, holds the fourteen-movement La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, for large orchestra, mixed chorus and seven instrumental soloists. I got to know the piece via Antal Doráti’s live Washington DC recording, taped for Decca in 1972. For me, that’s always been a hard act to follow; ditto the pairing, Simon Preston’s towering account of La Nativité, recorded at Westminster Abbey in 1965. One of the strengths of Doráti’s performance is its splendid array of gongs, played with great gusto; that said, Cambreling’s are thrilling, too.

Actually, everything about Cambreling’s version is impressive, from the recording itself – what fabulous weight and dynamic range – to the nicely balanced soloists and, best of all, the inspired singing of the EuropaChor Akademie. Messiaen conductors tend to major in ecstasy or reflection, with very little in between. Doráti is certainly intense, whereas Cambreling finds a middle way that’s most rewarding. In particular, his singers strike a a devotional note that rivals seem to miss. Also, his recording is much easier on the ear; Doráti’s now sounds a tad aggressive in the treble.

How do Chung and his ORTF forces compare? Recorded, appropriately enough, in Olivier Messiaen Hall, Paris, the spatial arrangement of chorus, instrumental soloists and orchestra seems entirely natural. As for those distinctly oriental gongs, they’re allowed to decay in the most thrilling way. For all that, Chung isn’t as fired-up as Doráti, or as involving as Cambreling. A fine performance, but, as the Ts & Cs tell us, alternatives are available.

CD6 and CD7 comprise Des canyons aux étoiles, La ville d'en haut and Un sourire. In 2015, I reviewed a live recording of Canyons with Christoph Eschenbach and the London Philharmonic (LPO). As it happens, I had just heard Cambreling’s revelatory account of this mammoth score. Indeed, that’s what prompted me to start planning a review of the Hänssler box. Do read that review, which explains, en passant as it were, why I think Cambreling’s performance eclipses those of Chung and Eschenbach. I’d go even further and say this is one of the finest Messiaen recordings in the catalogue.

As for Cambreling’s La ville d'en haut and Un sourire, they’re both very easy to recommend. There’s real passion and commitment in the first of these pieces; also, it’s a sonic treat, with oodles of colour, detail and authentic texture. The second, such a wistful little number, is delivered with wonderful transparency and grace. The Boulez/Cleveland La ville is big, bold and vividly caught, and Chung’s Un sourire is a gentle charmer. In short, honours are much more evenly divided in these attractive performances.

CD8 is devoted to the composer’s last substantial opus, Éclairs sur l'au-delà…, written for the 150th anniversary of the New York Phil in 1992. It’s further proof, if it were needed, that Cambreling is a first-class Messiaen interpreter. He has a firm grasp of the work’s long spans and a keen ear for its exquisite detail and radiant epiphanies. And goodness, what a ‘hear through’ recording this is, utterly natural in its disposition and delivery. As valedictory statements go, I’d place this alongside Mahler’s last works, such is its sense of summation and the contemplation of what’s still to come. Underpinning it all is an orchestra that, since the days of Hans Rosbaud, have tackled modern repertoire with consummate style and conviction.

After such sustained loveliness – those long moments of profound reflection in particular – it seems almost sacrilegious to consider alternatives. Alas, Chung’s performance is nowhere near as insightful or inspired as Cambreling’s; in fact, it’s one of the most disappointing items in his generally fine Messiaen series. Until now, my go-to version of Éclairs has been Ingo Metzmacher’s 2008 recording with the Wiener Philharmoniker (Kairos). That should be on your shelves already, along with David Porcelijn’s rather fine Sydney version (ABC Classics ABC 4425102).

Of course, this is only a broad-brush review, designed primarily to help potential purchasers who may be considering either of these boxes, or just looking for pointers on specific works. Completists will bend towards the DG set, which has some very good things in it. However, the SWR one boasts a number of quite outstanding – nay, indispensable – additions to the Messiaen discography. So, if forced to choose, I’d plump for the latter. And price, often a deal-breaker, isn’t an issue here: online, these two collections are pitched at between £31 and £35, which strikes me as very good value. Me? I’d want both.

Downloaders aren’t so lucky, with the 16-bit flacs selling for £55-£78. As I’ve remarked before, that’s just absurd; I’d be interested to know how many they shift at those self-defeating prices. If you must have this music in download form, buy the boxes and create bit-perfect rips using EAC (PC) or xld (Mac). You may also chance upon a sale: the Hänssler set appeared on Qobuz, albeit briefly, for around £20. That one didn’t include a pdf booklet – DG doesn’t either– but the SWR Music most certainly does.

With the exception of one or two discs, Cambreling’s set ranges from excellent to outstanding; a must for curious newcomers and Messiaen devotees alike.

Dan Morgan


CD1 [65:58]
Les offrandes oubliées (1930) [11:07]
L'Ascension (orchestral version, 1934) [25:24]
Poèmes pour Mi (version for soprano and orchestra, 1937) [26:36]
Yvonne Naef (mezzo)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Rec. 1999 (L’Ascension), 2002 (Offrandes) & 2007 (Poèmes), Konzerthaus Freiburg

CD2 [79:43]
Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948)
Roger Muraro (piano), Valérie Hartmann Claverie (ondes martenot)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Rec. 2008, Konzerthaus Freiburg

CD3 [60:33]
Réveil des oiseaux (1953)* [23:26]
Oiseaux exotiques (1956)* [15:08]
Chronochromie (1960) [21:23]
*Roger Muraro (piano)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Rec. 2005 (Chronochromie), 2007 (Réveil des oiseaux), 2008 (Oiseaux exotiques), Hans-Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden & Konzerthaus Freiburg

CD4 [72:44]
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) [33:21]
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (beginning) (1969) [36:02]

CD5 [63:43]
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (end)
Florent Boffard (piano), Franz Lang (xylophone), Horst Friedel (vibraphone), Jochen Schorer (marimba), Gunhild Ott (flute), Wolfhard Pencz (clarinet), Reinhard Latzko (cello)
EuropaChor Akademie
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Rec. 2000 (Transfiguration), 2008 (Et expecto), Konzerthaus Freiburg

CD6 [54:23]
Des canyons aux étoiles (1974) (beginning)

CD7 [68:41]
Des canyons aux étoiles (end)* [48:15]
La ville d'en haut (1987) [8:45]
Un sourire (1991) [10:39]
*Roger Muraro (piano), Thierry Lentz (horn), Jochen Schorer (xylorimba), Markus Maier (glockenspiel)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Rec. 2007 (Canyons, La ville), 2008 (Un sourire), Hans-Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden, Konzerthaus Freiburg & Herkulessaal, Munich

CD8 [76:29]
Éclairs sur l'au-delà... (1991)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Rec. 2002, Konzerthaus Freiburg