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messiaen chronochromie C250131
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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Les Offrandes Oubliées (1930)
Poèmes pour Mi (1936 orch.1937)
Chronochromie (1960)
Sarah Leonard (soprano)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen
rec. live, 1991/96, Konzerthaus & Musikverein, Vienna
French texts with English and German translations included
ORFEO C250131 [59]

I usually associate Michael Gielen with music in the German and Austrian tradition, so it is a pleasure to find him turning his considerable skills to the music of Messiaen. The three works here are taken from live performances, using recordings made by Austrian radio. These are of excellent quality and no applause is included.

Les Offrandes Oubliées was Messiaen’s first published orchestral work, though it was preceded in composition by others, now lost. It is subtitled Méditation symphonique, and, like much of his music, has a religious inspiration,. It is in three parts, played continuously, titled respectively The Cross, The Sin and The Eucharist, and he wrote out the meditation which he had in mind, which is printed in the booklet accompanying the disc. The opening movement begins with a slow melody on unison strings, already sounding like the mature Messiaen. The second adds in the wind and brass and is fierce and strongly rhythmical, and the third returns to the strings but now in more complex writing. Although early, this is a fully achieved work and well worth hearing.

Poèmes pour Mi is a song cycle, originally written for voice and piano in 1936 and orchestrated the following year. Mi was Messiaen’s pet name for his first wife, Claire Delbos. Sadly, she lost her memory after an operation in the 1940s and had to live in a care home where she died in 1959. Her husband continued to visit her regularly. However, this song cycle was written in their happy early days together and is about their mutual love. There are nine songs, which link their love to religious themes including the marriage of Christ and the church. Some are tender and romantic, while others introduce notes of fear and conflict, though not between the couple. There is throughout a note of ecstasy and the whole cycle is most attractive.

Chronochromie is sterner stuff. It was written to commission and completed in 1960. The title was invented by the composer from the Greek words for time (chronos) and colour (chroma). The work is scored for a large orchestra, requiring, among other things, six percussionists, with mallet instruments prominent. It is in seven sections which play continuously and which are named after the sections of a Greek choral ode: Introduction, Strophe I, Antistrophe I, Strophe II, Antistrophe II, Epode and Coda. Like all Messiaen’s later works it makes considerable use of transcribed birdsong. The listener will also note punchy rhythmical passages, passages in which the woodwind have complex interweaving lines (like the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), and long passages in which the xylorimba and marimba have joint solos in rhythmic unison. The Epode has become notorious: it is a complex web of overlapping birdsongs scored for strings in eighteen real parts. Despite the complexities and the occasionally rebarbative texture, I consider Chronochromie a masterpiece, and second only to the Turangalîla-Symphonie among Messiaen’s orchestral works. Stravinsky acknowledged what he called its force de frappe and to my mind it influenced his Huxley Variations, one of his last works.

Michael Gielen brings all the precision and vivacity for which he is well known to these performances. Les Offrandes Oubliées is beguiling and Debussyian. In Poèmes pour Mi, for which the composer specified a dramatic soprano, Sarah Leonard does not quite have the power required, something the radio engineers must have realized as, after the immediate opening, she is very slightly boosted. However, she sings with a true and lyrical tone and without the wobble which can afflict some of the sopranos who attempt this work.

As for Chronochromie, this might well be the best performance I have ever heard. The precision is astonishing, especially in a live performance of this formidable work, and yet there is also all the power, energy and excitement which it requires. Gielen took the work up early, and two of his performances are listed among the first ten recorded in the score.

There are, of course, other performances of all these works, though not in this combination, and listeners should be aware that there are recordings of Poèmes pour Mi both in its original piano version as well as in this orchestral one. But this programme is a rewarding one and Messiaen lovers should particularly seek it out for its outstanding Chronochromie. I wonder whether Gielen performed more Messiaen; I would love to hear it.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Hubert Culot (August 2022)

Performance details
16 November 1991, Konzerthaus, Vienna (Offrandes)
22 November 1996, Musikverein, Vienna (Poèmes)
8 November 1991 at Musikverein, Vienna (Chronochromie)

Published: October 24, 2022

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