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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965-69)
Roger Muraro (piano), Thomas Prévost (flute), Robert Fontaine (clarinet), Eric Levionnois (cello), Francis Petit (marimba), Renaud Muzzolini (xylorimba), Emmanuel Curt (vibraphone), Chœur de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-whun Chung
rec. September 2001, Salle Olivier Messiaen, Maison de Radio France, Paris.
Latin text, English, French & German translations included.
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 569-2 [35:05 + 64:46]

Recently I reviewed a CD from Myung-whun Chung’s Messiaen series for DG which Presto Classical had licenced for their on-demand service. Here’s another release from the same Messiaen series which Presto have also restored to the catalogue. The other disc consisted of four quite short works; this present release is on an altogether more substantial scale.

Everything about Messiaen’s La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ is on a vast scale, requiring huge forces. The orchestration specifies 18 woodwind instruments, 17 brass and a large string choir (16/16/14/12/10). The percussion battery is enormous, comprising all manner of tuned and untuned instruments and is divided into six separate groups. Messiaen specifies no less than seven different gongs and three tam-tams. The one thing that is missing from Messiaen’s orchestral panoply is an Ondes Martenot. Since so much of the score expresses ecstasy I’m mildly surprised at that omission, but perhaps Messiaen decided to dispense with the instrument on the basis that its singing quality would be somewhat superfluous given the involvement of a choir. Ideally, the choral forces should comprise 100 singers: 20 sopranos, a second group of 10 sopranos, 20 altos, 20 tenors, 10 baritones and 20 basses. Interestingly, Messiaen eschewed vocal soloists – apart from a few short passages for a baritone soloist from within the choir - but instead he wrote virtuoso parts for seven instrumental soloists, as listed in the header to this review. If all this sounds like musical excess on a grand scale that’s not really the case. It’s true that there are many passages involving substantial forces, and the climaxes are on a truly apocalyptic scale. However, Messiaen’s true intent was not just to have at his disposal forces that could depict the power and majesty of the event that La Transfiguration celebrates; surely, he also wanted to have at his disposal the largest possible array of instrumental colours.

There have been a number of recordings. The very first was made for Decca in April 1972 by Antal Doráti conducting the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. That recording was made a few weeks after the same forces had given the US premiere of the work – the world premiere was given in Lisbon in 1969. I don’t know if most of Doráti’s instrumental soloists were members of the orchestra but he had two internationally renowned soloists in pianist Yvonne Loriod and cellist János Starker. I heard the recording in its LP incarnation and bought it when it first came out on CD. Among subsequent recordings, Dan Morgan admired a 2000 version conducted by Sylvain Cambreling while Dominy Clements was greatly moved by a live 1991 performance led by the late Reinbert de Leeuw. There was also a recording some years ago conducted by Karl Anton Rickenbacher but I doubt that’s available any more. Equally, I’m not sure that either the Cambreling or de Leeuw versions can be obtained nowadays except as part of boxed sets, and I believe the Doráti recording has also been deleted.

This DG version by Myung-whun Chung also fell victim to the deletion axe, I believe, though it formed part of DG’s Messiaen Complete Edition in 2009; Patrick Waller was very impressed with the performance when he heard it in the context of that box (review). So, it’s very welcome news that Presto Classical has licenced the recording for their on-demand catalogue.

Messiaen constructed La Transfiguration in two parts or Septénaires; as the name indicates, each of these parts consist of seven sections. Four sections – two in each Septénaire – are short narratives (Récit évangelique), telling the story of the Transfiguration as related in Chapter 17 of St Matthew’s Gospel. The remainder of Part I consists of settings of words from various scriptural sources; these incorporate a significant number of references to light, complementing the idea of blinding light which one associates with the Transfiguration. In Part II, which is the longer of the two, scriptural texts are also used but in addition there are extracts from the Summa theologica of St Thomas Aquinas. The textural sources used throughout the work may be diverse but Messiaen, who compiled his own libretto, weaves them into a coherent whole. In his excellent booklet notes, Paul Griffiths, who also authored the notes for the Doráti set, makes a fascinating point: “the Transfiguration story reads like a ready-made Messiaen libretto. It is….extravagant, even bizarre. It completely lacks that touch of the ordinary, the commonplace, that gives the Gospels their immediacy. It is the invention of a surrealist.” I wouldn’t go as far as Griffiths goes in that last sentence, but his comment about the Transfiguration being out of the ordinary is right on the money: it is the story of a vision and it inspired the visionary in Messiaen.

I’m not going to describe the work movement-by-movement; I couldn’t begin to do it justice. However, a few movements cry out for special mention. The composer sums up each of La Transfiguration’s two parts in slow-moving chorale-like movements. Tellingly, the movement that ends the first Septénaire, ‘Choral de la Sainte Montagne’ is quiet and awestruck. The choir sings in mystical block chords; the harmonies and progressions are wonderfully exploratory but always come back to E major. This is a real expression of humble devotion, mixed with a degree of fear. By contrast, and unsurprisingly, ‘Choral de la lumičre de Gloire’ at the end of Part II is a great, broad processional during which the music is much louder than at the end of Part I, though it is not unremittingly loud. Here, I suspect, Messiaen is portraying the Church Triumphant in procession. The harmonies in the writing for the choir are more complex than anywhere else in the score until Messiaen resolves everything in an immense blazing and ecstatic chord for the full ensemble. Part II contains the two longest, most complex movements in the work. Movement IX, ‘Perfecte conscius illius perfectć generationis’ (Perfectly conscious of that perfect generation) explores Man’s relationship with God through the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. This movement is ambitious, even by the standards of the work as a whole. Here, Messiaen uses a baritone soloist in several short passages and that provides a good contrast with the choir’s unison declamations. Some episodes that feature earth-shatteringly low trombones and gongs evoke an almost tangible sense of an ancient rite. Elsewhere, the scoring is littered with liberal flashes of bright orchestral colours as birds seem to flash by, flying in and out of the musical landscape.

Right from the start, Messiaen’s music is imposing, even apocalyptic; the first Récit évangelique is introduced by a huge, slowly descending passage played on various percussion instruments, ending with the deepest gong. It’s awe-inspiring and that sets the tone for what is to follow. (Each Récit begins in a similar fashion.) Throughout the score, much of the choir’s music is written in unison and often has a chant-like quality, albeit the chant follows Messiaen’s distinctive melodic contours. The frequent use of unison writing makes the passages of harmony stand out all the more strongly – the choral harmonies are at their most complex in the very last movement. I think I’m right in saying that there isn’t a single bar of contrapuntal choral writing in the entire score; but who needs that when the orchestral writing is so rich and complex? I’m sure that Messiaen deliberately eschewed choral counterpoint so that the words received primacy.

The orchestral writing is fabulously imagined. Naturally, there are swathes of writing that depict birdsong. Birdsong permeates the entire score – the woodwind section is kept extraordinarily busy - and perhaps nowhere is the orchestral birdsong more prevalent than in movement XIII, ’Tota Trinitas apparuit’. This is a huge depiction of a vision of the Holy Trinity to whom the chorus sing praises. But if the chorus represents praise from mankind, the orchestra surely depicts the avian chorus of joyful celebration at the apparition of the Trinity. The orchestral writing is amazingly colourful at all times. For instance, in the first half of the work, the way that Messiaen depicts and alludes to light is most striking. An excellent example of this is movement III, ‘Christus Jesus, splendor Patris’. Here the solo septet in particular delivers music that is full of bewildering rhythms and colours. There’s an equally huge array of colours – but very differently depicted – in the fifth movement, ‘Quam delicta tabernacula tua’. It’s in this movement, too, that Messiaen has the choir humming rather than singing for the first time – but not the last – in the score. This is very effective in adding to the overall atmosphere.

I referred a moment ago to birdsong in the orchestra. The solo ensemble plays a full part in Messiaen’s instrumental aviary – the piano, flute and clarinet are unsurprisingly important here, but so too are the three tuned percussion instruments. All seven soloists are required to display significant virtuosity throughout the work’s duration; none is found wanting.

The contributions of chorus and orchestra are magnificent. Doráti’s forces are very impressive indeed but I think that Chung’s have the edge. Chung’s chorus is marginally more polished than the Westminster Symphonic Choir, which sings for Doráti. Crucially, the American choir is balanced rather more closely than their French colleagues, which means that the words are more clearly heard; DG achieve a more natural and pleasing concert hall perspective with the choir positioned behind the orchestra, it seems, but still perfectly audible. Both conductors are masterly. Chung secures terrific incisiveness but he’s also very alive to the rapt, expressive qualities of the music.

Decca’s analogue recording was made in Constitution Hall, Washington DC in April 1972. Their engineers did a fine job and the sound in which they captured the Doráti interpretation still sounds very impressive nearly 50 years later. In particular, the sound has great impact and definition. Chung’s performance was recorded by Radio France engineers and the French team did a superb job. The digital sound has terrific presence and, with the benefit of modern digital technology, seems to me to have greater depth and richness than Decca’s recording. I also prefer the fact that it’s not quite as closely balanced. In Chung’s recording a plethora of detail is revealed, all of it expertly balanced, and the many huge climaxes open up excitingly. In particular – and this is crucial in this score – the percussion is thrillingly reported; those gongs and tam-tams really make their mark, with the deepest instruments sounding magnificently imposing.

La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ is not for everyday listening; it’s a special occasion piece. As such, it’s been some time since I listened to it. It’s been thrilling to remind myself of the splendour and ambition of Olivier Messiaen’s visionary score through listening to Myung-whun Chung’s superb realisation of it. La Transfiguration is a stupendous achievement, arguably the pinnacle among Messiaen’s works which express his Catholic faith in music. This tremendous performance, captured in superb sound, is fully worthy of Messiaen’s great vision.

John Quinn

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