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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Concert à quatre (1990-91) [26:05]
Les Offrandes oubliées. Méditation symphonique (1930) [12:28]
Un Sourire (1989) [10:30]
Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931) [13:25]
Catherine Cantin (flute); Heinz Holliger (oboe); Yvonne Loriod (piano); Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille/Myung-whun Chung
rec. September 1994, Salle Gounod, Opéra Bastille, Paris. Presto CD.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 445 947-2 [64:51]

During the years when he was Music Director of the Paris Opéra (1989-1994) Myung-whun Chung made a series of Messiaen recordings for DG with the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille. This disc must have been one of the last, possibly the last, in the series. It usefully gathers together two orchestral scores from the composer’s early career and two of his very last works.

Paul Griffiths points out in his very useful booklet notes that Les Offrandes oubliées was the first of the composer’s orchestral scores to achieve a performance. The score is prefaced by a short poem by the composer; its three stanzas mirror the structure of the work. The first stanza, which concerns the crucified Christ, is illustrated by an extended section of slow, reverent music, primarily for strings and woodwind. The second stanza is concerned with mankind’s sinfulness; this is illustrated by a violent outburst for full orchestra (from 3:30). Here, the music has great venom and energy. The final section of Messiaen’s poem concerns Christ in the Eucharist. The music (from 6:32) is dominated by long, slow and radiant lines for the violins. Though at this stage in his career Messiaen’s orchestration was pretty conventional, as one listens to the violin melody it’s not difficult to imagine that a few years later the composer might have doubled the violin line with an Ondes Martenot.

Le Tombeau resplendissant was Messiaen’s next orchestral work. This score also is prefaced by some words authored by the composer, though this time it’s a prose piece. The sentiments are somewhat hot-house in nature. The tomb in question contains the author’s youth and he writes angrily about the loss of his youth. However, the final paragraph, is a declaration of the transforming power of faith which enables Messiaen to leave behind his youth in a very positive way. The music follows a fast-slow-fast-slow structure. The first section is very agitated indeed. This gives way (4:14) to a slower, much more relaxed episode in which strings, horns and woodwind are involved. Here, the music is lyrical and quite lush. There is a brief return to the opening turbulence (9:00). Then, as in Les Offrandes oubliées, the work ends with an extended slow passage dominated by the strings (12:04); indeed, I believe that passages in the respective works are cast in the same key of E major. However, the crucial difference is that in Le Tombeau resplendissant the melody is entrusted to the cello section. The rich, warm sound produced by the cellists of Chung’s orchestra is a delight.

I doubt if anyone who heard either of these works in the early 1930s would have guessed at the radical, influential mastery that was to come from Messiaen in the post-war years. However, we who hear them now with the advantage of hindsight can see presentiments of Messiaen’s post-war œuvre, especially in the extended, radiant string passages with which both works conclude.

From those early works Myung-whun Chung moves to two of Messiaen’s very last scores. Un Sourire (A Smile) was the composer’s contribution to the Mozart bi-centenary in 1989. Much of the music in this short piece consists of slow, warm string material (representing the smile), interspersed with short birdsong-inspired passages for woodwind and percussion. Referencing the slow episodes, Paul Griffiths comments that “Un Sourire is thus music of eternity as much as an homage to Mozart”.

The remaining work is Concert à quatre. I wonder if this was Messiaen’s way of saying thank you to Myung-whun Chung for his series of recordings because the work was written for Chung and his orchestra as well as the four soloists who feature on this recording. Indeed, these artists gave the world premiere of the work in Paris on 26 September 1994, the same month in which these recording sessions took place. This was the first recording of the Concert. Messiaen didn’t quite finish the work before his death. We learn from the notes that Yvonne Loriod, in consultation with Heinz Holliger and sometime Messiaen pupil, George Benjamin, completed the score by orchestrating the second part of the first movement and the entire fourth movement. To that fourth movement she also added a cadenza, of which more in a moment.

Concert à quatre is cast in four movements. First comes ‘Entrée’. Here the oboe and piano are especially prominent. There’s a good deal of lyrical beauty in the music and you won’t be surprised to learn that Messiaen’s beloved birdsong is also in evidence. The next movement is ‘Vocalise’. This is a transcription of a short piece of the same title which Messiaen wrote as far back as 1935 as part of a set of studies for singers. Given the source of the material, it’s unsurprising that the music has a gentle cantabile nature. It’s an unassuming delight. There follows ‘Cadenza’ This is a veritable musical aviary in which three of the soloists and various elements in the orchestra depict a number of birds. The writing is highly colourful and inventive. The exception among the soloists is the oboist, whose music depicts man. The very end of the movement consists of a modest flourish on the celeste followed by an almost inaudible stroke on the tam-tam which resonates for a very long time.

The last movement, ‘Rondeau’ is by some distance the longest. Here, Messiaen treats us to a panoply of exotic birdsong – and some nature sounds as well. The music is complex and consistently colourful. I think the point at which Yvonne Loriod’s cadenza begins is 7:09. At this juncture the music is interrupted by a carillon of bell sounds in the orchestra, reinforced by the solo piano. This leads seamlessly into a display passage for the soloists, depicting birdsong, which lasts until 9:05, after which the full forces bring the Concert to an extrovert conclusion. This work may not be a core work in Messiaen’s output. However, in this score we find him, towards the end of his life, writing for the sheer pleasure of it, I think, and with admired musicians in mind. It’s a fine envoi and, in the best sense of the word, very entertaining.

This is a valuable disc. It’s good to have works from both ends of Messiaen’s career and all four performances are splendid. Furthermore, the recorded sound is excellent. The booklet contains separate notes in English, French, German and Italian, all by separate authors. I can only speak for Paul Griffiths’ English notes, which are succinct and very useful.

This disc has been licenced by Presto Classical for their on-demand catalogue. It’s a very good addition to their ever-expanding list.

John Quinn

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