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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Orchestral Works
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg / Sylvain Cambreling
rec. 1999-2008, various locations
No texts or translations
SWR MUSIC SWR19421CD [8 CDs: 542:14]

In recent years, several large sets of Messiaen have been issued. The biggest is Deutche Grammophon’s Complete Edition, on 32 CDs (review). The 18-CD Messiaen edition on Warner Classics includes recordings by Messiaen himself and by his favourite interpreter and later his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, with several duplications and omissions. The Decca Messiaen edition, also very incomplete (two volumes, 6 plus 7 CDs), tends towards early recordings. DG also issued a smaller 10-CD set of the orchestral (and choral) works (4790114), which is the most comparable to the present set.

Sylvain Cambreling’s 8-CD box of orchestral works, first issued in 2008, is now reissued. How does this now stack up? Let us start with what is in it. The title, The Works for Orchestra, is rather misleading, because it is both less and more than that. It is less, because it is not complete. Missing are:

Le tombeau resplendissant (1931)
Hymne au Saint Sacrement (1932)
Sept Haïkaï (1962)
Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963)
Un vitrail et des oiseaux (1986)
Concert à quatre (1994)

All these are in both DG sets. On the other hand, it includes two vocal works: the orchestral song cycle Poèmes pour Mi and the large oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. It omits the smaller choral works Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine and the Chant de déportés. The second of them, very short, is minor, but the first is not. (The value of including the two vocal works is severely compromised by the absence of texts and translations in the booklet.) All four are also in both DG sets.

The unifying feature is the presence of the conductor Sylvain Cambreling throughout, along with the SWR Sinfonie-Orchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. He was its principal conductor from 1999 to 2011, during which period he made these recordings. Cambreling may be little known in the UK, so let me say that he is French, has conducted a good deal of opera, in particular Berlioz, as well as a good deal of contemporary concert music, including such luminaries as Rihm and Lachenmann. Cambreling has a long list of recordings to his credit, and an appropriate background for recording Messiaen. I dare say he would have liked to complete his cycle of Messiaen orchestral works with his orchestra; it is a shame that this was not to be. (He did later record Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise in Japan.) In any case, this is the largest body of Messiaen’s orchestral works performed and recorded under one conductor; this is a real strength of this issue. Some conductors strongly associated with Messiaen, such as Salonen, Nagano and Rattle, have each recorded only a handful of his works. Even Pierre Boulez, formerly a Messiaen pupil, refused to conduct the Turangalîla-Symphonie, once calling it ‘brothel music’. In the DG sets, the orchestral works are mostly divided between Boulez and Myung Whun Chung, another former Messiaen pupil, a less starry name but generally a good conductor of Messiaen.

Cambreling’s orchestra is the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. Founded after the last war, it had a long and distinguished record in performing contemporary music, including several Messiaen premieres. I say ‘had’ rather than ‘has’, because in 2016 it was merged with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, presumably to save money. Cambreling was offered the Chief Conductorship of the reorganized orchestra but refused in protest at the merger. Certainly in these recordings, made between 1999 and 2007, they are generally in admirable form: they sound as if they had played them in concert, perhaps several times, before they took them into the studio, They know them and it shows. Consequently, as well as having the precision and virtuosity, the attack and bite that are often required, they also take the long view. They shape phrases and musical paragraphs, which in the long run makes an effect rather different from the objectivity of Boulez or Chung. The precision of the woodwinds, the sonic splendour of the frequent brass chorales, the sensuousness of the strings, and the brio and éclat of the tuned percussion are all part of the pleasure of listening to this set.

The purely orchestral works begin with Offrandes – what a good piece this seems here! – and L’Ascension, whose orchestral version preceded the better-known organ version. The third movement is different in the two versions; generally the orchestral one is considered weak, but not here. Next comes the great Chronochromie. Here I felt that there was a slightly sluggish start, but the performance soon perks up. I was very impressed by how the xylophone and marimba players shaped their long solo passages. The notorious Épode, for eighteen solo strings playing overlapping birdsongs, evoking a dawn chorus, made the necessary dense but constantly changing web of sound without ever degenerating into mush.

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum proceeds with impeturbable grandeur. The acoustics of the Freiburg Konzerthaus allow the numerous bells, gongs and tamtams to resonate. Messiaen’s tribute to Mozart, Un sourire, does not sound remotely like Mozart but, perhaps surprisingly, has some of his charm and is nicely done here. A fellow reviewer found Cambreling’s Éclairs sur l'au-delà... too slow (review) but I did not. Perhaps I was used to his speeds by the time I reached this work. My attention was held throughout.

Moving on to the soloists, the lion’s share of the work is for piano. Although none of the works with piano is formally titled a concerto (given that Concert à quatre is not included), where there is a piano it always has a quasi-concertante role. Here, in everything apart from La Transfiguration, it is Roger Muraro, a well-known Messiaen pianist. He recorded all the solo works for Accord, and these were licensed by DG for their big box. Listening to him makes me realize how things have moved on since the days of Yvonne Loriod, who premiered these works. He has her brilliance and precision, for example in Réveil des oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques, but also a warmth which I do not associate with her. He brings plenty of light and shade to the music, and holds together the long solo ninth movement of Des Canyons, which does have a tendency to sag. He can be light and agile as well as forceful. I really appreciated this in the central cadenza of La ville d’en-haut. This work as a whole is an epitome of the late Messiaen on a less monumental scale than some of his other late works.

For the Turangalîla-Symphonie Muraro is joined by Valerie Hartmann-Claverie on the ondes martenot. They are both old hands at this work, and have each recorded it several times. Nowadays every orchestra can play Turangalîla – it was not always so – and there are several fine recordings. This performance under Cambreling combines exuberance with precision, and retains its modernist fierceness, not turning it into simply a virtuoso showpiece. A crucial issue is the balance afforded to the ondes martenot: it needs to be able to soar above the orchestra, and its whoops and growls need to be heard. I liked the balance here. Indeed, I would rank this performance beside my personal favourite, Chailly, and certainly ahead of Chung on the DG set, which, despite having both the Loriod sisters, has always seemed to me rather staid. (If you want to hear the Loriod sisters in this work, I would point to the Ozawa version as more rewarding.)

In Des canyons aux étoiles Muraro is joined by three soloists from the orchestra, on horn, xylorimba and glockenspiel. This is an even longer work than Turangalîla, and, though enjoyable from moment to moment, lacks the momentum of its predecessor. However, Cambreling holds it together well, and the big seventh movement, Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange, is very powerful. I was also impressed by Thierry Lentz’s horn playing in his long solo, the Appel interstellaire.

The other main soloist is Yvonne Naef in Poèmes pour Mi. Her voice is clear and true, with a just a hint of vibrato to give warmth. Françoise Pollet for Boulez in the DG set is more powerful but less steady. On balance, I prefer Naef.

The late oratorio La Transfiguration features seven solo instrumentalists and a chorus, the excellent EuropaChorAkademie. Surprisingly, Muraro is not the pianist in this – confusingly, he does play in the rival version by Chung in the DG set – and the others are, I think, drawn from the orchestra and none the worse for that. I have to admit that, for me, this work is on too large a scale, and it outstays its welcome. Still, the performance seems to be a fine one.

Summing up then, the performances here are all good, and a comparison with the DG set is a matter of swings and roundabouts. The recording quality is generally fine. Had it been complete, this set would have been at least an alternative to the DG set, and possibly a first choice. As it is, this set will tend to appeal most to those who already have some other versions and wish to hear different performances, particularly those who have the Boulez Poèmes pour Mi and the Chung La transfiguration and so already have the texts. Neither offers texts and translations, though the DG set has a Web link to the texts. (The big complete Messiaen box on DG does include texts.) The booklet gives minimal basic information about the works, Cambreling and the orchestra. Still, I have have enjoyed and been impressed by this set. I shall return to these performances.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: 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 (La Transfiguration), 2008 (Et exspecto), 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 (Des 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

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