Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Transfiguration de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1969) [94:27]
Poèmes pour Mi (1937) [27:39]
Chronochromie (1960) [22:58]
Jenny Daviet (soprano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. 20-23 June 2017, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich (Transfiguration); Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, 3-6 July 2018 (Chronochromie), 11-15 February 2019 (Poèmes)
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BR KLASSIK 900203 [145:04]
In preparing this review, I was surprised to discover how relatively little of Messiaen’s music Kent Nagano has recorded given that his is a name I associate with the great French composer. This new set fills in a substantial gap in his catalogue and it does so rather magnificently.
The early work, Poèmes pour Mi, has always been popular with its seductive post Debussy orchestral writing. Despite setting poems written by the composer based on passages from the New Testament, it is a musical poem of love. The fingerprints of Messiaen’s later style such as irregular rhythms, are already present in this score but in a much less advanced form. It is the perfect piece to show off the stupendous sound BR Klassik have produced for Nagano and colleagues. The soprano is Jenny Daviet who sings very well but I think I would have preferred a richer, creamier sound in such luxurious vocal writing. I did like the playfulness she brings to the fourth song. Too often the religious dimension of Messiaen’s work can induce a kind of po-faced piety in performers who consequently miss his humour.
Having caught up with Kirill Petrenko’s widely admired Mahler 7 over the Christmas break, it seems that the BRSO are enjoying an exceptional period in their already distinguished history at the moment. The orchestral playing throughout is fabulous and never better than in the dripping textures of the song cycle. The intertwining violin and woodwind lines in the sixth song have a translucency that is simultaneously spiritual and sensual as they are surely meant to be.
The largest work here, the Transfiguration, is also the highlight. This is one of those extremely large works like Des Canyons aux Étoiles, that seem to suffer in the shadow of the blockbuster that is the Turangalîla symphony. Comparisons are unfair, as by the late sixties Messiaen’s creative preoccupations had shifted considerably. Textures are leaner, processes more advanced, the mysticism more ascetic. These are works that often get overlooked in favour of earlier pieces or the more expansive sound of the later opera, St Francis. This recording makes a forceful point in defence of the Transfiguration as one of Messiaen’s more dramatically appealing scores.
And there is plenty of drama as one would expect from a composer who made his name with a quartet about the end of time! Whilst there is a lot more to the piece than the apocalyptic, the big moments are thrillingly caught by the Bavarian radio engineers. At one point I found myself thinking about an unexpected thread joining Messiaen to Berlioz’ Requiem.
The obvious competition in all of these works are the DG recordings made by Myun Wung Chung under the composer’s guidance. The Transfiguration has been recorded a few times before. The sheer scale of the forces required mean that it is probably as likely to be encountered on disc as in the concert hall. This is a live taping and, in this work, that helps. Chung might be said to have a greater grasp of Messiaen’s idiom but I liked Nagano’s less severe and more flexible approach a great deal.
As is often noted, the Transfiguration is the closest Messiaen came to writing an oratorio and the chorus plays a major part in every movement. The choral writing is highly taxing but wonderfully evocative. Not that you know from the ease with which the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus take it all in their stride.
The warmer sound on this set combined with a less hard edged approach than that favoured by, for example, Boulez makes the pair of later works, the Transfiguration and Chronochromie, sound less daunting than they often do. The distance between the early Poèmes and the later works doesn’t sound so great as it usually does. The delights of Messiaen’s scoring and the audacity of his aural imagination have never sounded as powerfully as here. The immensely characterful woodwind playing, to choose one example, reminded that this is the same orchestra who gave us Kubelik’s wonderful Mahler and that that tradition is alive and well.
I will state at the outset that I believe Chronochromie is Messiaen’s masterpiece or perhaps his masterpiece amongst masterpieces might be a better way to put it. It seems to me to contain all that is great about the composer’s work in his tightest and most compelling structure. There are the visionary vistas of the early piano music, the unbuttoned craziness of Turangalîla but also the mind boggling technical feats of the later music, all shot through with the inevitable birdsong. Rather than being severe, it is exultant and full of joy.
My benchmark has for some time been Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra on DG and it is tempting to speculate how much the differences between that recording and this is down to an American versus a European band. I suspect, though, the different mentalities of the conductors had as much to do with it. Even by his standards, the Boulez performance is stunningly precise, bringing Messiaen’s complex textures vividly to life. At first listen, I found Nagano sounded almost slack by comparison but that important quality of joy I mentioned earlier began to persuade to pay closer attention to what the American conductor was up to. Boulez brings life affirming vitality but Nagano’s birds bring a cheeky good humour that seems to me to capture some of the delight that Messiaen the ornithologist found in watching and listening to birds.
The big climaxes are thrillingly big but even here the orchestral sound is rich rather than hard edged. Some might miss the razor sharp playing of the Cleveland strings in polyphonic spree of the work’s penultimate section but I rather enjoyed the unexpected echoes of Bach that the Bavarians find in it.
This set is a triumph for all concerned and essential listening for anyone interested in the music of the second half of the last century.
Previous review: Simon Thompson