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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931) [16.42]
Les Offrandes oubliées, méditation symphonique (1930) [9.48]
Un sourire (1989) [10.35]
L'Ascension - Quatre meditations symphoniques: (1932/33) [27:17]
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich / Paavo Järvi
rec. live, January, April 2019; studio, January 2019 (Un sourire), Tonhalle, Zurich
ALPHA CLASSICS 548 [64.48]

This release of Messiaen’s early and late orchestral works was something of a revelation to me. As a long-time, regular concert-goer, I find that when a Messiaen orchestral work is played it is almost inevitably the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Here, the listener is treated to a programme of three early works which deserve to be better known, inlcuding L'Ascension, in four movements, and a single work from the final years of his life. There is no ondes Martenot, certainly an acquired taste for some.

The earliest work, Les Offrandes oubliées, méditation symphonique (The Forgotten Offerings - Symphonic Meditation) is a symphonic poem from 1930 which was premièred the following year in Paris. Taking inspiration from his devout Roman Catholic faith, an approach which was to become so typical of him, the composer designed the work in three panels in the manner of an ‘Altar triptych: Cross - Sin - The Eucharist’, titles the composer used when describing it. The booklet essay notes describe these sections as ‘Contemplation, Descent and Ecstasy’; Messiaen wrote a poetic text to accompany the score. Järvi imbues the ‘Cross’ with a longing character but it is not without warmth; the turbulent ‘Sin’ spits out angst menacingly and ‘The Eucharist’ conveys an intense, contemplative quality, airless with a sense of floating.

My highlight of the release is Le Tombeau resplendissant, such a glorious work with four distinct sections (fast-slow-fast-slow).  Written in 1931, Le Tombeau resplendissant was premièred in 1933; Messiaen then withdrew the work, which received its next performance as late as 1984 and was published after his death. Described by the composer as an epitaph, this is undoubtably a work of mourning divided into four main panels conforming to the stanzas of the poetic text which include words of consolation from the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Biographer Stephen Schloesser described the work as, ‘filled with both rage and beatitude.’ Järvi, in the first and third sections, relentlessly drives the music forward, ensuring a passionately stormy character while emphasizing the fluctuating rhythms. In between the contrasting second and fourth sections with conspicuous flute parts, Järvi communicates a sense of calm, but it is uncomfortable with an undertow of foreboding. Nevertheless, one senses that all hope is not lost and consolation is possible.

Described by the composer as four meditations for orchestra, L'Ascension - Quatre meditations symphoniques was written in 1932/33 and premièred in 1935. The notes mention that L’Ascension is more usually encountered in its version for organ which Messiaen completed later with a new third movement. Once again, Messiaen has provided a short prayer to accompany each meditation. Scored for winds and taken at a measured pace in the first movement, Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père (Majesty of Christ asking glory from his Father) contains continually rising motifs which seem to reach up to heaven. Noticeable in the second Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel (Serene alleluias of a soul desiring Heaven) are the ‘Alleluias’ in the title, used as ‘chanted songs of jubilation’ according to the notes. To me, Järvi provides an evocation nature by way of a nocturnal forest scene with dawn breaking. Trumpet fanfares open the third Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale (Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal). The score reminds me strongly of Debussy and Ravel; the dance-like quality that Järvi produces is uplifting and the six weighty climaxes are impressive, too. In the fourth section, Prière du Christ montant vers son Père (Christ’s prayer ascending to his Father), written for strings only, he creates a slowly moving, atmospheric cloud of orchestral writing.

The only late work on the album is Un sourire (A Smile) which Messiaen wrote in 1991 to mark the bicentenary of Mozart’s death, when it received its première. Very different in character from his other works, it is a tender homage to Mozart combined with the composer’s love of birdsong. Said by musicologist Christopher Dingle to display ‘the almost Classical restraint that characterizes Éclairs’ the work contains two dissimilar soundworlds. Messiaen contrasts tranquil, lyrical strings and winds consecutively with sounds that evoke birdsong, featuring a prominent xylophone. Under Järvi, the four similar sections are highly focused, evoking a sense of being becalmed on water and they are divided by shorter passages of vividly played birdsong containing conspicuous xylophone contributions.

All four works were recorded in the Tonhalle; Un sourire was made under studio conditions and the other three are live. The engineering team has excelled in providing clarity, presence and balance. There is little extraneous noise in the live recordings and any applause has been taken out. Entitled ‘Orchestral Credentials - and a Mozartian Smile’ the booklet essay written by Inga Mai Groote is first class, providing all the essential information. There is also the text of a short interview between Paavo Järvi and Ulrike Thiele about the music of Messiaen. I am also delighted that the text for each of Messiaen’s three poetic texts/prayers is provided.

The Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich is finest form, providing focused playing of remarkable clarity of texture and expressive phrasing. Overall, Järvi’s requirement for accuracy and attention to detail has commendable integrity, essential in this music. This is a highly recommendable album, certainly one of the most satisfying that I have heard so far this year.

Michael Cookson

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