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Messiaen transfiguration 900203
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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ [94:27]
Poèmes pour mi [27:39]
Chronochromie [22:58]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Jenny Daviet (soprano)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Kent Nagano
rec. live, Transfiguration June 2017, Philharmonie im Gastieg, Munich; Poèmes pour mi Feb 2019, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich; Chronochromie July 2018, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich
Booklet contains essays, texts and English translations
BR KLASSIK 900203 [3 CDs: 145:04]

Aside from the composer himself and Yvonne Loriod, his second wife, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and conductor Kent Nagano probably rank as the most important interpreters of Messiaen’s music that we’ve ever had. Both knew the composer well and have achieved famous feats in his music, like Aimard in the Catalogue des Oiseaux, and Nagano in the composer’s opera St Francois d’Assise. Here they are both united in the same work, the monumental Transfiguration, and that on its own makes this an important document.

In the booklet for this release (which, importantly, contains the sung texts and their English translations), Nagano writes warmly about his experience of the composer, including the time when he not only studied with Messiaen but lived alongside him and Loriod in their Paris house. It’s interesting, and an indication of the importance of the relationship in Nagano’s creative life, though it’s an extract from another book rather than something written specifically for this release, and Nagano says very little about the music itself.

It very much speaks for itself, though, and the monumental Transfiguration sets you up right from the beginning with the bizarre array of percussion that calls it into being. This meditation on Christ’s transfiguration sets a range of texts in a range of styles, but never loses sight of the composer’s overall vision: to create something that’s undeniably spiritual but which also carries a hint of asceticism to it, as though Messiaen is calling us not so much to spiritual ecstasy as to a purgatorial self-examination.

The moments of narrative that set the Biblical passage are set like uncontroversial plainchant, but the moments that call us to spiritual contemplation and self-examination are set with more pictorial urgency, and the mystical spirituality in the instruments combines with the plainchant style of the choral singing to create something profoundly dramatic. Indeed, the stringency of the orchestral texture mirrors the spiritual journey we are called on. Witness, for example, the sense of the apocalypse in the third movement, matched by beauty and warmth in the Chorale of the Holy Mountain. The longest movement sets passages from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica. The sound here is almost hallucinogenic, atonal chord clusters pitted against bass drones and psychedelic percussive effects, against which the male soloists sound like a cross between imam and precentor. It’s completely spellbinding, regardless of the spirituality of the words, and encapsulates the work’s esoteric blend of Catholic mysticism and universal aestheticism.

It’s hugely to Nagano’s credit that he keeps the whole thing sounding coherent. He completely believes in it, and he burns with the clarity of vision that shows he wants us to believe in it, too. He is matched by playing of complete commitment from the unorthodox assemblage of the Bavarian RSO’s orchestral musicians, all of whom play excellently. Equally importantly when it comes to orchestral texture like this, the engineers have done a fantastic job of capturing the acoustic of the Gastieg Philharmoinie, so that all of the glinting textures sound clean and clear.

The choir is absolutely at the centre of the composer’s vision, however. They sing a vast range of texts, ranging from collects and biblical passages through to esoteric medieval poetry and theology. Overwhelmingly they sing in austere unisons, but that means that the rare moments when they break into fluid harmonies, particularly towards the end of the work, have an intoxicating impact. The text is in Latin, so it makes barely any difference (if at all) that the choir aren’t French. So competently do the Bavarian choir sing that they give the strong impression they have been drilled to within an inch of their lives. They sound extraordinary, swelling like the bellows of a mighty organ, and doing full justice to the composer’s interstellar vision.

Aimard sounds terrific, too. The long piano solo in the “How lovely are thy dwellings” movement is more like a dramatic soliloquy than a cadenza, the piano seeming both to ask and answer its own questions, and his interactions with the winds and brass in the Tota Trinitas movement sound like the aural equivalent of a cubist painting, representing every conceivable side of the musical argument at once. It’s dazzling and brilliant, and would be a great place for anybody curious about the work (or the composer) to begin their exploration of it.

The other works in the set are less grandiose but are still too big to be called fillers. The title of Chronochromie (time colour) speaks to the composer’s famous condition of synaesthesia, his ability/compulsion to associate music with certain colours. While it’s only 23 minutes long, there is a big sense of scale to this piece and to this performance. Huge blocks of sound seem to smear into one another like blending colours, and with that comes a big orchestral sound. Nagano here is like a ringmaster holding the whole thing together, and the work’s sense of scale is excellently captured. There is a feeling of purposefulness, almost relentlessness to the music, which I found very compelling, and throughout there is a powerful sense of scale, from the twittering winds and jangling percussion to the strings, meandering yet focused.

Poèmes pour mi sets a series of Messiaen’s own texts, all of which, again, orbit around his own faith. This isn’t exactly a small scale piece, but the orchestral texture sounds more open and transparent in comparison to the grandiloquence of Le Transfiguration and Chronochromie. The musical mood is varied, from the terror of Épouvante to the supplicatory zeal of Prière exaucée. But the blissful spiritual peace of the fifth song, L’épouse, tends to be the predominant mood, and you sense Messiaen not only meditating on his faith but revelling in the joy it brings him. Soprano Jenny Daviet sounds terrific here. Hers is a clean, bright soprano whose voice sounds fantastically shiny: she has the fragile colour of a coloratura, even though there is barely any coloratura required, and she fits the music to perfection.

The recorded sound is super throughout, captured beautifully in both the Philharmonie am Gasteig and the Herkulessaal, and the presentation in a clamshell box is very appealing. These are three great performances of three important Messiaen works, combining the gifts of two of his most important interpreters, and attractively presented, too.

Simon Thompson

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