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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Le Tombeau Resplendissant (1931) [10:42]
Les Offrandes Oubliées (1930) [9:48]
Un Sourire (1989) [10:35]
L’Ascension (1932/33) [27:17]
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/Paavo Järvi
rec. 2019, Tonhalle Maag, Zürich
ALPHA CLASSICS 548 [64:48]

It is good to see a new generation of interpreters taking up Messiaen’s music as, however good older versions are, listeners like to hear music played by their contemporaries, and the good old versions by Marius Constant, Pierre Boulez, Myung-Whun Chung and others are now well over twenty years old. This disc represents the first fruits of Paavo Järvi’s new appointment as Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle-Orchester and he has certainly established a good rapport with them.

Three of the four works here are early, in fact Messiaen’s first published orchestral compositions. First, we hear Le Tombeau resplendissant. The tomb in question is that of the composer’s youth, his mother having died, and his father having remarried and starting a new family, while the composer was himself about to get married to his first wife. It begins with some savage stabbing chords which move into a kind of fierce dance. There is then an interlude featuring swooning strings and some delicate woodwind writing. The fierce music returns and then there is a long melody in that ecstatic language which is so characteristic of Messiaen. Although an interesting piece, it is not one of Messiaen’s most successful, and it is not surprising that he discouraged its performance for many years.

It had been preceded by Les Offrandes Oubliées, which, in contrast, had been and is a distinct success. This is described as a méditation symphonique. It is in three sections, the first featuring a sinuous string line haloed with wind chords. There is then a vigorous rhythmic section, in which the bass drum is prominent. The final section is slow and ecstatic. It is hard to say how this work comes off in a way in which its successor Le Tombeau resplendissant does not, but hearing the two together only reinforces that judgement.

Un sourire comes from towards the end of Messiaen’s long career. He wrote it for the Mozart bicentenary, and he always expressed his admiration for Mozart, particularly for Don Giovanni and the piano concertos. He also wanted to express his respect for Mozart’s cheerfulness in adversity. He, of course, had had his own trials to put up with, including having been a prisoner of war and having to endure the slow decline of his first wife. It is in Messiaen’s mature idiom, with an emphasis on treble instruments and no use of the heavy brass. There is an alternation between a modal string theme and birdsong, using his favourite tuned percussion, and the mood anticipates the heavenly world of Eclairs sur l’au-delà, Messiaen’s last completed orchestral work.

Finally, we return to the early period and L’Ascension, the best-known work here. Although probably even better known in its organ version, this orchestral one actually came first and has a different third movement. The orchestral writing is even more assured than in the two earlier pieces, and the solemn chords of the first movement remain immensely impressive. The winding lines for the wind in the second movement make a very suitable contrast to this. The third movement in this orchestral version is generally considered the weakest, its fugato theme deployed in a dance seeming oddly academic compared to the rest of the work, though I must admit to enjoying it. The final movement is a slow, radiant, ecstatic piece for strings which is wholly characteristic and wholly successful.

Paavo Järvi has held a previous appointment with the Orchestre de Paris and so has had ample opportunity to perform Messiaen. I don’t know how much experience the Tonhalle Orchester has had with the composer, but they play here with a fine assurance: the complex chords are well balanced, the wind solos are eloquent, and the strings never lose their warmth. I am slightly surprised that Järvi chose to include Un Sourire in this programme rather than to record the Hymne au Saint Sacrement, to complete the tally of Messiaen’s early orchestral works. (The original score of the Hymne was lost during the war and Messiaen reconstructed it from memory in 1947, and the reconstructed score probably benefits from the greater mastery he had by then achieved). Still, in its own terms this is a satisfying programme. The recording has a nice bloom on it. Un Sourire is a studio recording and the others live performances, but there is no noticeable difference in quality and applause is not included. The booklet notes, in three languages, are helpful.

Although there are other recordings of all the works here, some of them are now generally available only in large comprehensive boxes. All, in all, this would be a good place for anyone exploring Messiaen to start. I hope we shall hear more Messiaen from Paavo Järvi.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Michael Cookson

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