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La Mer Bleue
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 1 (1956-58):  No. 1 Le Chocard des Alpes [10:06]; No. 2 Le Loriot d’europe [8:08]; No. 3 Le Merle bleu [13:51]
Interludes for two violins: Song Thrush and Thekla Larks] [2:41]; Golden Oriole and Garden Warbler] [1:56]
David GORTON (b.1978)
Ondine (2004) [8:14]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Piano Sonata No. 3, op. 36 (1916-17) [19:12]
Postlude for two violins [1:17]
Roderick Chadwick (piano)
Peter Sheppard Skćrved and Shir Victoria Levy (violins) (Interludes & Postlude)
rec. 2019, Angela Burgess Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London
DIVINE ART DDA25209 [65:27]

The title’s pun is quite clever; building on the wordplay between the third number, ‘Le Merle bleu’, of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 1, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement (quoted at the head of the liner notes) that ‘Music needs to be Mediterraneanized’ (blue seas), it defines the sun-drenched mood of much of this music.  It includes two of my favourite 20th century piano works and introduces me to a worthy ‘new’ piece celebrating the water nymph or sprite, Ondine.

The key to understanding the massive opening work, Book 1 of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, is to realise that the composer has not just jotted down the ‘bird-song’ of several of our feathered friends and regurgitated it, but has first taken the ‘notes’ and created a hugely pianistic reinterpretation of them. It is not an ‘exact’ transcription; often the tempo is slowed down and the notes are realised for the chromatic scale, which the birds certainly do not know.  Secondly, he has almost magically created in the progress of the music an evocation of the landscape, the light and the ‘parfums’ appropriate to the habitat. The liner notes give a great précis of Livre 1: “The first book of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958) begins with an Alpine chough’s ‘tragic solitary cry’ and ends with a Mediterranean women’s’ chorus. It is a journey towards sunlight, colour and company, from mountain to coastline, from rhythmic machinations to nostalgic added sixth harmonies...”. The performance here is ideal; Messiaen’s captivating sonorities are captured with great skill and maturity.

I have not knowingly heard any music by David Gorton. That said, the title Ondine immediately appealed to me as I have always had a soft spot for this lady and her artistic representations. Think of Claude Debussy’s portrayal of her in his Book II of the Préludes, or the first number in Maurice Ravel’s piano masterpiece, Gaspard de la Nuit; then there is the eponymous ballet score by Hans Werner Henze. To me, she is usually represented by ‘watery’ music. If I had listened to Gorton’s ‘take’ on Ondine with an innocent ear, I would have guessed that it was a fugitive piece by Olivier Messiaen which had passed me by. It certainly seems to nod towards ‘birdsong’ although the advertising blurb for this disc insists that it is not specifically based on this. I enjoyed this music, but it did seem to lack the tang of the sea or the splash of fountains. It is, I feel, a meditation on the water nymph’s loss of beauty and her curse of eternal wakefulness directed towards Sir Lawrence.

Any approach to the music of Karol Szymanowski needs to take account of his three-part stylistic development. This rule of thumb may be a wee bit rough and ready, but it does generally work. His first period is usually defined as following in the footsteps of the German High Romantic composers Max Reger and Johannes Brahms.  This was followed by a more colourful musical palette nodding towards Impressionism (Debussy) and the work of Scriabin which sometimes pushed towards the atonal works of Arnold Schoenberg. His last musical phase turned towards a more traditional aesthetic informed by a deep interest in Polish folk music. The Piano Sonata falls into the second ‘period.’ Here several factors come into play, for not only do the techniques of impressionism and expressionism give this work its character, but there are influences provided by antique and oriental cultures. The liner notes give an excellent description of this Sonata: “If the Third Sonata shows Szymanowski tracing a mental journey from his grand tour back to the troubled homeland (facing a transformed future of conservatoire leadership, financial hardship and health problems), he never stops dreaming of the South.” The work was written at a time of great tragedy for the composer. During the 1917 Revolution Szymanowski’s family home in Tymoszówka (now in the Ukraine) was burnt to the ground. His two grand pianos were destroyed and dumped into a nearby lake.

The Sonata No.3 is written in one continuous movement – like the Liszt B minor. However, it is clearly divided into four distinct sections. It can be analysed in several ways, but for me it is ‘episodic’ in nature. This Sonata requires considerable technique as well as an engaged interpretation. Roderick Chadwick has created a good synthesis in this recording balancing the “effervescent, shimmering colours of impressionism”, and the more modernist deployment of chromaticism and dissonance. Underpinning this, is the Romanticism of Franz Liszt - at least at a formal level.

Why did Divine Art spoil this disc with the totally irrelevant two-violin ‘Interludes and Postlude’? That is not a criticism of their musical value as such; they are just totally unnecessary. Messiaen’s and Szymanowski’s music is perfectly able to stand on its own, without the need for a commentary. There is no indication in the liner notes as to who ‘composed’ these pieces; for all I know, they could be improvisations. Six or seven minutes are devoted to these Interludes; why could Roderick Chadwick not have boned up on another suitably ‘Mediterranean’ inspired piece? There would have then been plenty of room for another piano piece. Certainly, at 66 minutes the duration of this CD is a bit mean.

The liner notes by the pianist are excellent. providing a detailed and contextualised description of each piece. This is hardly surprising as Chadwick is the author of an excellent study of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. The usual biographies of the performers are included.

All in all, this is a superb album: three exceptional works skilfully played. Ignore the ‘fiddle accretions’ and it makes a perfect recital.

John France

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