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Quatuor pour la fin du temps
and Messiaen's Maths
On 26th March 2017 Concerts Penzance presented a Humphry Davy Science & Music Lecture on the subject of the mathematics and numerology in the first movement of Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Liturgie de cristal). This was followed by a complete performance of the Quatuor given by students of the Royal Academy of Music London.
The often highly animated Marcus du Sautoy (Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) delivered the lecture to a packed audience at Penwith College, Penzance, Cornwall. Sautoy is well placed on the subject being a former trumpet player and keen Messiaen enthusiast who has first hand knowledge of performing some of Messiaen’s work.
He devised a visual animation (the Island) that used various shapes and forms including cogged wheels to demonstrate and draw comparisons with the number system that Messiaen used in Liturgie de cristal that for the uninitiated worked extremely well. His background knowledge of Messiaen was substantial although I became a little uncomfortable with the amount of emphasis placed on the use of serialism in Messiaen’s music. That aside the lecture remained engaged and highly communicative throughout.
After the interval a complete performance of the Quatuor was given by Charles Dale-Harris (clarinet), Kate Oswin violin), Ghislaine McMullin (cello) and Joseph Havlet (piano). It must be said that this is a heck of a work for seasoned professionals to take on so all power to the elbows of these four fine players for this undertaking. It is not only the technical virtuosic ensemble playing needed in movements such as Vocalise pour l’ange qui announce la fin du temps and Danse de la fureur that is challenging but more the mental, spiritual concentration of the two Louange movements and the overall architecture of the entire work.
The four musicians here remained highly committed despite some mechanical issues with the clarinet at times. Ghislaine McMullen’s Louange a l'éternité de Jésus was compelling with no distortion of line or intent. Contrastingly there was a real sense of energy and thrill in Danse de la fureur where the quartet captured the score with vivid immediacy.
I am constantly heartened by the wealth of quality music making in the most south western corner of the UK and especially the genuine enthusiasm and interest shown for the music of Messiaen due in no small amount to the efforts of musicians such as Nigel Wicken and in the case of this concert, Tim Boulton and Concerts Penzance.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Catalogue d'Oiseaux (complete)
at Aldeburgh Festival UK
When news broke several months ago that Pierre-Laurent Aimard would perform Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux at the Aldeburgh Festival in its entirety, not in Messiaen’s written order and in one day from dawn to dusk and beyond, many seasoned concertgoers and Messiaen devotees thought the idea was bonkers and it would never work. How wrong they would be with the whole day sold out and over subscribed soon after booking opened.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Roger Muraro and Michel Beroff are three pianists most closely associated with Messiaen’s piano music and all were pupils of Yvonne Loriod and the couple often referred to them as their (musical) children. So having Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival) in the driving seat for this special event meant that there was no doubt whatsoever that it would not work.
Aimard chose to place the pieces of the Catalogue by the time of day associated with the bird songs, so the concerts were presented thus: 4.30am Dawn – 1.00pm – Afternoon – 7.30pm – Dusk and 11.00pm – Night.
4.30am 'Dawn' Concert Hall Cafe. ©Sam Murray-Sutton
I have to say that after performing in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the previous evening, it was somewhat of a struggled to get myself up and arrive in Snape for the first concert at 4.30am. (Hardy twitchers were at the reed beds at 3.30 and before the sun rose). However, any sense of fatigue soon dissolved as we the audience took our seats in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall Cafe facing the window and looking out on the reed beds as the sun rose to the strains of Messiaen’s Traquet Stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear), La Bouscarle (Cetti’s Warbler) and Traquet Rieur (Black Wheatear) all mingling with the Suffolk dawn chorus.
At 1.00pm in the Britten Studio the ‘Afternoon’ concert revealed Le Buse Variable (Buzzard), L’alouette Calandrelle (Short-toed Lark), Le Loriot (Golden Oriole) and Le Merle Bleu (Blue Rock Thrush). The 7.30pm ‘Dusk’ concert was presented at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve outside on Whin Hill with Les Chocards des Alpes (Alpine Chough), Le Merle de Roche (Rock Thrush) and Le Courlis Cendre (Curlew). Finally back at the Britten Studio, ‘Night’ concluded with La Chouette Hulotte (Tawny Owl), L’Alouette Lulu (Woodlark) and La Rousserolle Effarvate (Reed Warbler).
What was most striking throughout the day was Aimard’s complete sense of focus (not to mention stamina) in the three locations and how each acoustic space could respond to Messiaen’s aural ‘paintings’. These works are not merely transcribed songs of the titled bird but rather their entire natural habitat and the relationship with other birds within that habitat are all represented, so natural phenomena such as tranquil lakes and rushes, rugged mountain terrain, crashing waves of the sea, howling wind etc. all form part of the canvas.
To present the Catalogue over a 19 hour period is impressive enough but to perform with such nuanced playing, emotional power and unshaken security was just astounding. Le Merle Bleu (Blue Rock Thrush) was simply breath-taking and left me speechless with its glittering and fluid passage work and sense of drama whereas La Chouette Hulotte (Tawny Owl) truly sent shivers up the spine with its depiction of ‘darkness, fear and beating heart’ with a call that at times sounds like (in Messiaen’s words) ‘a child being murdered’. A long way from the peaceful setting of La Bouscarle (Cetti’s Warbler) heard both by Aimard’s poised and piquant playing and ‘live’ by the bird itself in the reed beds at Snape.
Presenting the 7.30pm ‘Dusk’ concert at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve outside on Whin Hill was a risky masterstroke given the unpredictability of the English summer but one that paid off. Yes there was a vexing wind that kept Aimard’s page-turner on her toes but the effect and musical impression was magical. Special mention must go to the BBC. Musical events in the open air are notoriously difficult to control in both volume and sound quality, but the BBC team got it just right. Having Tom McKinney announce throughout the day was also fitting as he has, (according to the booklet notes) been bird watching all of his life. The Festival book was lavish but just a shame that Messiaen’s descriptions were not printed in full for each piece.
In between the concerts, other events took place in and around Snape including Nigel Paterson’s film: Dawn Chorus: The Sounds of Spring, a Festival church service, a concert by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge at Blythburgh Church, an RSPB Walk and an illuminating talk by Christopher Dingle (Messiaen specialist and musicologist) and Nigel Collar (ornithologist).
1.00pm 'Afternoon' Britten Studio ©Matt Jolly
For many years Yvonne Loriod’s account of this work had remained definitive, but Pierre-Laurent Aimard took it to a higher plane setting a tough benchmark for pianists such as those attending his master-classes during the previous week.
This is Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s final year as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival and thanks must be given for the diversity of art and music that he brought to Suffolk over eight years but perhaps none more so than that of the 19th June 2016 where the entire landscape and natural beauty of Suffolk played a significant part in Messiaen’s and Aimard’s vision.
7.30pm 'Dusk' RSPB Minsmere © Matt Jolly
11.00pm 'Night' Britten Studio, Snape. © Matt Jolly
Review of the all-Messiaen concert.
St. Mary's Church Penzance, Cornwall. UK
4th June 2016.
Featuring Malcolm Ball (ondes Martenot)
and Peter Humphrey (piano), with Nigel
1. 5 Leçons de Solfege (1934) Nos.l,2,3,5,4. Ondes & piano.
2. O sacrum convivium (1937) soprano (Laura Nicholas) &Nigel Wicken (organ)
3. Two piano pieces played by Peter Humphrey: La colombe (1929)
and Rondeau (1943).
4. Le merle noir (1952) flute & piano - (Pippa Drummond, flute; Paul Comeau piano).
5. Feuillets inedits (=unpublished pages) andes & piano.
6. L'alouette lulu (1957) piano- (Peter Humphrey)
7. Vocalise (1935) Ondes & piano
8. Premiere communion de la Vierge (1944) piano.
9. Oraison des belles eaux (1937) Ondes & piano.
10. Joie et clarte des corps glorieux (1939), Nigel
This all-Messiaen concert was a unique musical event, and it
was applauded with great enthusiasm by an audience of over 70
people. A glance at the items in the programme with their dates
shows that these are works from the earlier half of the
composer's career, the latest in date being L'alouette lulu
composed in 1957 when Messiaen was aged 49.
The concert included authorized arrangements for ondes
Martenot and piano along with some other fine works that have
hitherto seldom been performed. None of the pieces is
particularly obscure or difficult for the listener. Indeed the
intention was for this to be a concert of attractive and
accessible music, much of it extraordinarily beautiful - music
that deserves to be heard more often.
Many people will know of Messiaen's use of the Ondes
Martenot in three of his greatest works: Trois petites liturgies
de la Presence divine, Turangalila, and Saint François d'Assise.
The pieces in this concert, however, were adaptations of the high
melodic line of some smaller works, pieces originally written
with pedagogical intent - sight-reading exercises or examination
tests. In their modest way they often exemplify Messiaen's
characteristic melodies, harmonies and rhythms. What is
remarkable is their quality, and also their delightful deftness
The 5 Leçons de Solfege (1934) for ondes and piano formed an
ideal start to the concert. These sight-reading pieces,
originally for soprano but readily adaptable for flute or for
ondes, are easy on the ear, some sprightly, others with a mildly
melancholy and wistful charm. We were not challenged with any of
the loud swoopings and whoopings characteristic of the Ondes
in parts of the large orchestral works. This evening we
experienced the quieter and ethereal qualities.
O sacrum convivium (1937), beautifully sung by the soprano
Laura Nicholas accompanied by Nigel Wicken on the organ. This
version is rarely performed, though the a capella version is
often sung by cathedral choirs. This was a spellbinding and very
The four piano solos, admirably played by Peter Humphrey, were
all remarkably different from one another. La colombe (1929)
was delicately evocative; Rondeau (1943) came across as exciting
and dazzling with a delightful lightness of touch; La premiere
communion de la Vierge (1944) communicated a beautiful and deeply
spiritual experience. L'alouette lulu (1957) was wonderful:
velvet-dark chords representing night, magical high descending
trills of the woodlark, the more percussive brilliance of the
Le merle noir (1952) for flute (Pippa Drummond) and piano
(Paul Comeau) was sensational in its virtuosity and brilliance.
The audience was bowled over by it.
Of the pieces for ondes and piano, which constituted the
bulk of the concert, it was the Oraison des belles eaux that
built up to the most sustained intensity. Malcolm Ball and Peter
Humphrey achieved an extraordinarily subtle, well-graduated, and
compelling melodic and chordal progression. The emotion was
The concert concluded with Joie et clarte des corps glorieux
(1939) played on the organ by Nigel Wicken using the exact stops
and registrations that are indicated in the score. The "joy and
radiance" resounded in the church, an exhilarating and fitting
Nicholas Armfelt (June 2016)
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Gustavo Dudamel conductor, Yuja Wang, piano, Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot
Royal Festival Hall London. 16th January 2016
Some might say there was something more dazzling than the Lumiere Light Festival showing over London on the 16th of January and that was the appearance of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel at London’s Southbank performing Messiaen’s mighty Turangalîla Symphonie. Messiaen loved to ‘dazzle’ and we were certainly treated to an aural and visual feast from the moment piano soloist Yuja Wang strode onto the Royal Festival Hall stage sporting a sparkling micro mini dress with matching shoes only out shone by her dazzling and scintillating performance of this quasi piano concerto. Ms. Wang is well known for her concerto performances of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich etc. but not later 20th century works such as this. She may not have this music completely in her bones as Pierre-Laurant Aimard and indeed she seemed a little over reliant on the score at times, but she played the most demanding passages with unshaken security and a kaleidoscopic dynamic sense. This was particularly evident in movement 6 (Jardin du sommeil d’amour) where Messiaen had just started to develop his birdsong writing. Her delicate touch and ‘improvisatory’ approach allowed Messiaen’s birds to flit effortlessly over a cushion of strings and Ondes Martenot melody. As attractive and, again, dazzling her six inch stiletto heels and three inch platform shoes were, they did impair her pedaling at times where some resonances were abruptly cut short and not fully controlled. This was a minor glitch in an otherwise quite staggering performance.
Turangalîla Symphonie is new fair for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and Dudamel added to their repertoire in 2015. This team with Yuja Wang and Cynthia Millar have performed the work in Barcelona, Luxembourg, London and will play in Cologne on the 24th January. The work is not new to ondist Cynthia Millar, having played it countless times over many years now. Her performance here demonstrated just how well attuned her ear is to tonal and dynamic balance of her instrument with the rest of the orchestra.
Dudamel stuck rigidly to Messiaen’s orchestral numbers that are inflated in all departments including 10 double basses. I have heard this piece where reductions were made and it really spoils the effect, balance and colour, but not so on this occasion. He conducted with precision and passion coaxing out the delicate ‘flower motif’ played by woodwinds, contrasting this with the burnished white-hot fortissimo ‘statue theme’ in the brass. He also stuck well to Messiaen’s revised tempi with just movement 5 (Joie du sang des étoiles) taking a few bars to settle. I felt the tam tam was a little cautious in the climaxes and the staggered positioning of the metallic instruments (vibraphone, celeste and keyed glock) did not create the intended gamelan effect that Messiaen wanted.
Bruce Hodges’ progamme notes were rather too generalised and contained a few minor inaccuracies. He alluded to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde but failed to place Turangalila within Messiaen’s own Tristan trilogy (Harawi, Turangalîla Symphonie and Cinq Rechants).
This said, the ‘force’ was certainly with Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the vitality and energy that the orchestra is famous for was 95% evident. I reserve 100% for the performance given by the National Youth Orchestra of GB under Sir Andrew Davis in a 2001 BBC Prom.
© Malcolm Ball
BBC Proms Friday 7th August 2015
Royal Albert Hall, London.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Orchestration realised by Christopher Dingle (b. 1971)
Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (Oiseau tui)
(1987/8, orch.2013/14) world premiere.
‘On either side of the river is the tree of life…’
‘Bless the Lord, all birds of the air’ (Daniel 3:80)
For those of us who felt that Peter Hill’s recent and exciting discovery of the piano piece ‘La fauvette passerinette’ was the last piece of Messiaen’s manuscripts to see a new light of day since the composers’ death, image our thrill to hear of this 4 minute gem that emerged from the work desk in Paris! This said, many scholars and enthusiasts have known about ‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (Oiseau tui)’ as Chris Dingle pointed out in the highly illuminating Proms Extra talk that was shared with Peter Hill. Messiaen planned for a pair of movements in ‘Éclairs sur l’Au-delà…’ that featured the tui bird from New Zealand and the lyrebird from Australia. The lyrebird remained in the finished work but Messiaen, reluctantly decided to omit the tui from Éclairs. He had, however, written all the music for the movement in a three stave short score and characteristically approved this by marking ‘Bien’ to note its completion.
Thanks to Peter Hill who was granted a copy from Messiaen’s widow Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, Chris Dingle set about the daunting task of orchestrating the movement.
It would be very hard to find another as well qualified as Chris to undertake such a task with his boundless knowledge of Messiaen’s final works (especially Éclairs) and a thorough understanding of the orchestral palette used by Messiaen.
The song of the tui is remarkable for its vast vocal range as well as being a great imitator of, not just other birds, but also many environmental sounds it hears such as percussive knocks and clicks, swooping glissandi and even the human voice. As one who has been fortunate enough to see and hear this bird first hand (on Tiritiri Matangi Island NZ) I can confirm it is one of the most vocally adept of all the avian species.
The result is a 4-minute virtuosic tour de force in all the orchestral departments. Messiaen’s beloved trio of marimba, xylorimba and xylophone featured prominently and executed with great aplomb by the percussionists of the BBC Philharmonic. The tui’s song flits around the orchestra of multiple woodwind, brass and strings at great speed and dazzling metrical complexity often culminating (and concluding) by ‘tumbling’ onto three cellos.
The wood blocks are featured in an almost concerto-like capacity and there are smacks of ‘Oiseaux exotiques’ with repeated tutti stabs, but as Chris Dingle pointed out, the music contains clearly recognisable ‘Messiaen’ but at the same time colours and traits new to his birdsong writing.
And it is ‘colour’ that really dazzled us in the Royal Albert Hall this evening by craftsman of 20th (and 21st) century composer/orchestrators.
Mozart kicked off the first half with the not too often heard Idomeneo – ballet music and although not 20th century, Messiaen considered Mozart a great colourist who’s influence remained with him throughout his life.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave a glittering and moving account of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as the breath-taking Etude de concert by Pierné by way of an encore, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, Colin Matthews’s delicate and translucent orchestration of Oiseaux tristes from the piano suite Miroirs by Ravel and Ravel’s own orchestral masterpiece La Valse concluding the proceedings.
The BBC Philharmonic was on top form in all departments driven by the effervescent Nicholas Collon who coaxed out all the subtle nuances in this feast of nature and colour.
Peter Hill and Christopher Dingle
Philharmonia Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, Ondes Martenot
Royal Festival Hall London. 28th May 2015
The last time I reviewed the Philharmonia performing Turangalîla Symphonie was back in 2008, Messiaen’s centenary year when they performed the work in sunny Southend-on-Sea, Essex (see below) and the only change in personnel in this performance was ondist Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (Jacques Tchamkerten was in the ondes chair in Southend).
This was the final concert in the Philharmonia’s series “City of Light – Paris, 1900–1950” and if you want to go out with a bang then Turangalîla is the ideal choice. But before the mighty Symphonie, we were treated to some sonorous delights of a different kind beginning with Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute and indeed it could be said that the orchestra ‘grew’ throughout the evening with Simon Coles alone on stage followed by the rarely heard La damoiselle élue for female chorus, mezzo and soprano solo and orchestra, then Turangalîla where the RFH stage was bursting at the seams.
From the opening bars of the Introduction it was clear that Messiaen’s ‘baby’ was in safe hands as of course it has been with Salonen for many years now. The orchestral colours so important for Messiaen were clearly defined here and exquisitely balanced throughout. The keyboards (celeste, keyed glock and vibraphone) were positioned correctly at the front of the stage but sadly the mallets used on the vibraphone were too soft to convey the clanging gamelan effect that Messiaen intended.
Salonen’s tempi were well judged throughout but for (and this was the case in 2008) the 9th movement where Messiaen revised the tempo from quaver 100 to 80. Salonen produced a rather jaunty jog rather than the mysterious strange and ethereal atmosphere created by ondes, percussion, keyboards and 13 solo strings. If the tempo is too fast the timbral detail and rhythmic personalities are lost or at least thrown into relief.
This aside, Salonen and the orchestra produced an epic performance with soloists Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing entirely from memory with great command and expressive intensity and Pierre-Laurent Aimard setting the whole piece alight with his stunning virtuosity and consistent engagement befitting in this glittering finale to the ‘City of Light’.
NEW RELEASE - Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine, O sacrum convivium! Cinq Rechants. Conductor Marcus Creed The Danish National Concert Choir, Danish National Vocal Ensemble and The Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Marianna Shirinyan (Piano) and Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot) April 2015 Our Recordings, Catalogue No: 6.220612 UPC: 747313161263.
L'amour et la foi explores the vocal music written by Messiaen within, more or less, a ten year period beginning in 1937 with O sacrum convivium the only work where Messiaen uses an original liturgical text. Marcus Creed and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and Concert Choir make the most of Messiaen early modal colours where voices are finely balanced and dynamically phrased creating a harmonic mist where one can almost smell the incense.
This contrasts magnificently with the somewhat unsettling Cinq Rechants. If O sacrum convivium is one of Messiaen's most performed and approachable choral works, Cinq Rechants is the exact opposite requiring great virtuosity and vocal gymnastics tackled by only the most secure professional choirs and thus probably the least performed of Messiaen's choral works. I say 'unsettling' because this work is complex on many different levels, not only the technical aspects of rhythmic and vocal pyrotechnics but this work was composed (in 1948) at a time when Messiaen's domestic life was at an emotional peak. During its compostion, his first wife Claire Delbos underwent an operation that incurred complications and would later be blamed for the drastic deterioration in her memory. Her erratic behavior made life chaotic and increasingly difficult for Messiaen to compose and he often feared for the safety of his manuscripts but this was the climate in which Cinq Rechants was written. It was of course also part of what is known as Messiaen's Tristan trilogy (Harawi - Turangalila Symphonie and Cinq Rechants). The trilogy in his private life being himself, Claire Delbos and Yvonne Loriod. This heady and potent emotional mix manifests itself in Cinq Rechants with its invented language, percussive incantations and folkloristic chantings alongside the most heartfelt and 'caressant' love song moments. Creed and his choir rise admirably to these challenges with a broad and varied palette of colours and expressive hues. I just felt a little temporal caution in the opening Rechant that didn't always allow the 'stella fury' to fully flourish and the male tk tk tk percussion a little too polite. The balance and focus of the soft organ-like chords in No.3 are exquisite and the solo soprano floats effortlessly with broad breadth of phrase throughout. This is a highly polished performance recorded in a fine acoustic, but sometimes a little 'dare' and abrasion is needed to offset the polish.
Much has been written about the furore surrounding the first performance of Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine in 1945 claiming the inappropriate nature of the music in a religious context so I will leave it up to the reader to persue (or not) this avenue. The fact is that Messiaen weaves a dense and often powerful sound world by using a relatively small combination of instrumental resourses a concept that would re-emerge in Des Canyons aux etoiles... many years later in 1974. A mark of a true craftsman. Trois petite liturgies uses female choir, small string section, minimal percussion, vibraphone, celeste, piano and Ondes Martenot and again in this recording everything is heard with crystaline clarity and colouful balance. Marianna Shirinyan's piano demonstrates just the right amount of improvisational quality in the birdsong passages while Thomas Bloch's Ondes weaves mysteriously with violin counterpoint in movement 1 and sensuously in movement 3 with choir and cushioned strings. Throughout, Marcus Creed shows great depth of understanding Messiaen's sound world and this, together with excellent recording technology and CD presentation makes for a very rewarding listening experience from this enterprising and high quality label.
22 February 2015
Het Orgelpark, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Fête des Belles Eaux for 6 Ondes Martenot’s
Fabienne Martin, Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire, Philippe Arrieus, Haruka Ogawa, Dominique Kim, Augustin Viard.
Quatuor pour la fin du temps
Thomas Dieltjens, piano
Benjamin Dieltjens, clarinet
Aki Sauliere, violin
Raphael Bell, cello
This concert was the culmination of a Messiaen festival organised by Johan Luijmes, (artistic director) and his team at the colourful and attractive Orgelpark venue in Amsterdam. Previous concerts in the series featured such luminaries as Ralph van Raat performing Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus, Berry van Berkum performing Les Corps Glorieux and Musici Nederlands Kamerkoor Klaas Stok with Marcel Verheggen performing Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle, O Sacrum convivium, L’Ascension, Cinq Rechants, Le Banquet céleste.
Although I was unable to attend the entire festival I was determined to make the trip to Amsterdam on Sunday the 22nd to see and hear this performance of Fête des Belles Eaux by ‘Vecteur Ondes’ (Fabienne Martin, Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire, Philippe Arrieus, Haruka Ogawa, Dominique Kim and Augustin Viard). This piece is so rarely heard live that any performance that is only a short plan trip away is most definitely worthwhile.
Messiaen was one of 20 composers commissioned to write a piece in 1937 for a festival of sound, water and light (a ‘son et lumière’) that took place along the river Seine in Paris and after seeing and hearing Maurice Martenot’s new electronic invention in 1928 he opted for a piece featuring 6 Ondes Martenot’s. The performance began after dark where fireworks in the sky were mirrored by jets of water combined with the harmonies of the music.
Nowadays we settle for the six Ondists seated in a semicircle in the comfort of a concert hall, as was the case on the 22nd. The virtuosic first Ondes part (the role originally played by Ginette Martenot the inventors’ sister and later Jeanne Loriod) was superbly executed by Fabienne Martin who coaxed the most expressive qualities and emotional intensity from the instrument in movements 4 and 6. This musical material later famously found its way into the Quatuor. Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire guided the overall performance clearly and concisely resulting in excellent ensemble and dynamic expression throughout.
Those of you familiar with the oak coloured wooden cabinet style that Maurice Martenot produced together with the eye catching lotus leaf shaped ‘palme’ loudspeaker would have been slightly disappointed as all the performers used the Ondea, a modern version of the original that has no such ‘art nouveau’ qualities. This is not a problem, as the sound quality and characteristics of the Ondea is very close to that of the original Martenot instrument and of course much more reliable, but being a little old fashioned, I just like the aesthetic of the original instrument.
However, the metallique speakers (a resonating gong) were used to create the highly effective shimmering in the 6th movement. Also, it wasn’t until 2003 that the new score of Fête des Belles Eaux was published and the timbre registrations were written for the series 7 Ondes Martenot that only includes 3 speakers: Principle, Reverberation and Metallique (D1,D2 and D3).
This was a memorable performance of the highest quality that clearly demonstrated the organic, human expressive quality of these instruments that have stood the test of time and sets it aside from modern day synthesizers.
The second half of the concert was given over to a scintillating performance of Quatuor pour la fin du temps perhaps Messiaen’s most performed work. If this is the case, then it is still extraordinary how every performance brings something different to the work. Benjamin Dieltjens, Aki Sauliere, Raphael Bell performed their respective ‘solo’s’ with rapt intensity all underpinned by Thomas Dieltjens’ secure, no nonsense pianism that totally captivated the audience throughout. A true Amsterdam standing ovation for both performances was thoroughly deserved.
As an extra ‘treat’ there was a running video of an interview with Messiaen and Dutch maestro Reinbert de Leew centred on a performance of La Transfiguration de notre-Seigneur Jésus Christ – what more could we ask for?
All thanks to Johan Luijmes and Karlijne Swart for their tireless efforts and hospitality.
Messiaen-ic Marvels From Denmark
Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 10
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind–a journey into a wondrous land bounded only by imagination…” Although that was an introduction to the strange new world of the classic 1960s television series The Twilight Zone, it came to mind as an equally apt intro to the music of Olivier Messiaen. Although his world isn’t exactly the Twilight Zone’s unfathomable, unpredictable “middle ground between science and superstition”, in his choral music the composer definitely did create his own special, unique, alternately mystifying and frightening, ultimately exhilarating “zone” of sound, a realm of ensemble vocalism that challenges all who will hear.
The Three Liturgies–for female voices, piano, ondes Martenot, celeste, vibraphone, percussion, and string orchestra–is as radical in every aspect as anything today’s composers offer, but at its core there is a passionate heart and a musical purpose beyond merely making noise. You keep listening, not because you’re charmed and comforted–but rather because your senses are so deeply stirred, the familiar conventions of choral sound and rhythmic form and expression so profoundly and movingly redefined.
Long before composers such as Arvo Pärt or György Ligeti became known for works whose rhythmic and harmonic effects sparked descriptions such as “soundscape” and “suspension of time”, there was Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium! (1937), which not only embodies those concepts but remains an unforgettably moving, perfect realization of this oft-set sacred text.
Once again we approach the very edge of the boundaries of musical time and space–not to mention the edge of what’s humanly possible, vocally speaking–with the Cinq Rechants (Five Refrains), written for 12 solo voices. The subject is a part of “the myth of Tristan and Isolde”; the music deals in extremes, in all aspects, from dynamics and rhythmic forms to virtuosic vocal technique. You don’t forget this music once you’ve heard it. And fortunately Marcus Creed and his Danish singers and players–along with pianist Marianna Shirinyan and ondes Martenot soloist Thomas Bloch (in the Three Liturgies)–are more than just able advocates for Messiaen’s music: they are musicians of exceptional ability and admirable commitment, who leave no doubt that we are hearing performances that will stand alongside or above any in the catalog.
Whether turned up or at a lower level, the sound is full and vibrant and well-balanced in both the combined choir/instrumental and a cappella pieces. While this program and repertoire may not be for everyone, if you’re a serious choral music fan and you don’t already have these works in your collection, you need to hear this, and this recording most invitingly opens the door. David Vernier, May 2015.
• Von naivem Glaubensausdruck zu surrealistischen Liebesgedichten
• L'amour et la foi; Olivier Messiaen: 3 Petites liturgies de la Présence Divine, O sacrum convivium, Cinq rechants; Marianna Shirinyan, Klavier, Thomas Bloch, Ondes Martenot, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Concert Choir & Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Marcus Creed; 1 SACD Our Recordings 6.220612; 2014 (59'03) – Rezension von Remy Franck
• Die ‘Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine’ komponierte Olivier Messiaen in den Kriegsjahren 1943 und 1944. Sie drücken den Glauben des Komponisten in die Gegenwärtigkeit Gottes in allen Dingen aus. Die vorliegende Neuaufnahme bringt diesen naiv-kindlichen Glauben in einem schillernden Farbenspiel und wirbelnder Bewegungsrhythmik zum Ausdruck. Das kurze Stück ‘O sacrum convivium’ bringt introspektive Ruhe, ehe die ‘Cinq Rechants’, ein A capella-Werk, das Messiaens sogenannte Tristan-Trilogie beschließt, uns in eine ganz andere Klangwelt entführen.
• Drei Sopran-, Alt-, Tenor- und Bassstimmen singen in Texturenvon Unisono und Hoquetus bis zu zwölfstimmiger Polyphonie, und Messiaens Augenmerk gilt hier der Rhythmik. Der Komponist erklärte, er habe Silben ausgewählt « wegen der Weichheit oder Gewalt ihres Anstoßes, wegen ihrer Fähigkeit, die musikalischen Rhythmen zu betonen. Sie erlauben eine einfache Kombination der vier Kategorien: des Phonetischen (Klangfarbe), des Dynamischen (Intensität), des Kinematischen (Betonungen) und des Quantitativen (Dauern)”. Das zeigt, welche Anforderungen hier an die Solisten gestellt werden. Marcus Creeds Leitung ist von extremer Klarheit und begegnet der Liebesthematik mit einer gewissen strengen Kühle, die manchmal an Stravinsky erinnert und das Surrealistische in Messiaens Musik in fast beängstigender Weise wiedergibt.
• This SACD with vocal music by Olivier Messiaen shows different aspects of his music, from the most naïve expression of faith in Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine to the surrealistic feast of love in Cinq Rechants. The vocal qualities of the Danish ensembles are enthralling.
Thursday, 7 May 2015
A terrific new disc of vocal works by Olivier Messiaen featuring the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Concert Choir and Danish National Chamber Orchestra under Marcus Creed that will appeal to Messiaen and choral enthusiasts alike
Vocal works form an important part of Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) www.oliviermessiaen.org compositional output right from his Deux Ballades de Villon for voice and piano (1921). The three major influences on Messiaen’s music were his Catholic faith, bird song and eastern rhythms all of which feature in the works recorded on a new disc from OUR Recordings.
Marcus Creed http://singers.com/choral/director/Marcus-Creed conducts the Danish National Vocal Ensemble www.dr.dk/Koncerthuset/kor-og-orkestre/dr-vokalensemblet , Danish National Concert Choir www.dr.dk/Koncerthuset/kor-og-orkestre/dr-vokalensemblet and Danish National Chamber Orchestra with Marianna Shirinyan (piano) www.marianna-shirinyan.com and Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot) www.thomasbloch.net in Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine, O sacrum convivium! and Cinq Rechants, all relatively early works written between 1937 and 1948.
With Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine (1944) Messiaen sought to exploit new sonorities not just by the use of unusual instruments, such as the ondes Martenot, but by new combinations of more familiar instruments, scoring it for female voices, piano, ondes Martenot, celeste, vibraphone, percussion and string orchestra.
The female voices of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and Danish National Concert Choir bring a suitably mellifluous, softly gentle sound to Antienne de la conversation intérieure (Anthem for the interior Conversation) with a fine piano contribution from Marianna Shirinyan, finding all of Messiaen’s rhythmic qualities. The gentle strings of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra blending beautifully with the choir, rising a little in dynamics on occasions before the tempo and rhythmic nature of the music picks up on the words ‘Ce oui qui chante comme un écho de Lumière’ (‘This ‘yes’ that sings like an echo of light’) with all of the mature sound of Messiaen with hints of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written three years earlier, in its rhythmic insistence. Eventually the music returns to its earlier, gentle nature with the pianist providing Messiaen’s distinctive bird call phrases, beautifully done with a really fine coda.
Séquence du Verbe, cantique divin (Sequence of the Word, a divine canticle) quite literally chimes out both in the declamatory vocal style and with the piano pointed up by bells, underlaid by the strange whoops and glissandi of the ondes Martenot. The music rises in drama before broadening as the choir and strings bring a lovely sonority with beautiful harmonies before picking up the opening tempo to drive through to a terrific climax with cymbal clashes and the ondes Martenot sounding out.
The orchestra opens Psalmodie de l'Ubiquité par Amour (Psalm of the Ubiquity of love) soon joined by the choir in an insistent theme, the choir responding brilliantly to Messiaen’s demands. There are moments of gentle repose where the ondes Martenot can be heard. The choir, orchestra and soloists bring a terrific sense of urgency to the more driven passages with a lovely sense of dynamics, the piano adding so much to the drama. The music reaches a peak before a sudden hushed section on the words ‘Vous qui parlez en nous…’), (‘You who speak within us…’) quite exquisite, as both choir and orchestra and, later, the ondes Martenot bring out the otherworldly atmosphere. After a momentary pause, the tempo becomes lively as the choir and orchestra punch out the phrases, with the ondes Martenot sounding. Again there are lovely little moments when the insistent pulse slackens for a brief moment but overall the music pushes forward urgently to another climax complete with spectacular descending ondes Martenot scale before a lovely hushed coda.
This is a marvellous work given a terrific performance here.
The choir return alone for one of Messiaen’s better known and often performed choral works, O sacrum convivium! (1937) These singers open with a beautiful blend of voices, exquisite control, rising finely in the central peak, never losing their lovely sonority, before a hushed coda. A classic work beautifully performed.
Cinq Rechants (1948) for twelve solo voices forms the last part of Messiaen’s ‘Tristan’ trilogy. It is scored for three sopranos, three contraltos, three tenors and three basses. The ‘Tristan’ trilogy consists of the song cycle Harawi (1945), the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946/48) and Cinq rechants that take the myth of Tristan and Isolde and the theme of love. The text is a mixture of French and a Sanskrit-like language invented by Messiaen himself.
A solo soprano sounds out dramatically in the opening of Hayo kapritama before falling as the solo voices from the Danish National Vocal Ensemble join in this fast moving piece. The music is often interspersed with some passages of flowing, shifting vocal harmonies, expertly sung here with brilliant precision and lovely tone. There is some terrific overlaying of individual vocal lines rising to moments of fine accuracy of pitch before the soprano brings about the end.
A solo alto opens Ma première fois before these voices weave a terrific tapestry of sound moving through wide intervals before suddenly picking up the tempo in a faster passage. The music soon slows as various individual voices take the text before arriving at the coda.
An alto opens Ma robe d'amour in another of Messiaen’s lovely melodies. The other voices join as we are taken through some exquisite harmonies, beautifully sung, before suddenly bursting out in faster, dramatic music before returning to the opening slower theme. As the music speeds and slows these singers build up a tremendous layering of textures before a declamatory halt. The voices then bring a glorious hushed, sonorous sound over which a solo soprano weaves a lovely line.
With Niokhamâ palalane soukî the voices sound out urgently before dropping to a softer, slower section within which many vocal lines are woven. The opening tempo appears again as the tempos alternate with, later, a soprano rising up in a lovely passage to which the others bring a fine sonority to end.
Mayoma kalimolimo has a rhythmically buoyant opening that soon gives way to a slower section interrupted by hushed vocal sounds before the voices move ahead with the soprano providing some terrific moments, with wonderful precision throughout, before the hushed vocal sounds lead to a hushed coda.
This is a terrific disc that will appeal to Messiaen and choral enthusiasts alike. They are well recorded at two different venues and there are informative notes with full texts and English translations.
JC Klassiks, Denmark
Der er kommet endnu en fremragende og prisværdig Messiaen-indspilning, ”L’amour et la foi” (Kærligheden og troen), denne gang med vokalmusik sunget af DR Vokalensemble og Koncertkor og spillet af DR Underholdningsorkestret, som ulykkeligvis stødte muren mod en ministeriel betonmur, men her lever som Danish National Chamber Orchestra. Kirkesange, liturgier og motetter fortolkes nuanceret og dybtgående og klangligt fascinerende med Marcus Creed som dirigent. Marianna Shirinyan får meget spændende ud af en speciel klaverstemme, og Thomas Bloch mestrer her den elektroniske ondes martenot. Typisk Messiaen, tænker man først, men så dukker Benjamin Britten næsten op med forfriskende rytmiske anslag, og så er vi videre et helt nyt sted i Messiaens univers mellem himmel og jord.
Denne cd er udgivet af det lille eksklusive pladeselskab Our, som distribueres af Naxos Records. Den tekniske kvalitet er som altid hos Our meget høj. (Messiaen vokalværker. OUR Recordings 6.220612).
Kom bare ikke og sig, at al denne ovenstående musik ikke er værd at fordybe sig i.
Guardian: Peter Hill: Messiaen’s La Fauvette Passerinette, etc CD
review – hugely rewarding
Wednesday 22 October 2014
Olivier Messiaen’s greatest achievement of the 1950s was the Catalogue
d’Oiseaux, seven books of piano pieces based on birdsong he’d
transcribed in the wild. Apart from one further large-scale piece in
1970, La Fauvette des Jardins (The Garden Warbler), those pieces were
his last significant works for the piano – though he continued to make
extensive use of birdsong in all his orchestral and ensemble works for
the rest of his life. But while working on Messiaen’s sketches in 2012,
Peter Hill came upon what appeared to be several pages of a draft of a
previously unknown piano work, dating from the summer of 1961.
La Fauvette Passerinette (The Subalpine Warbler) is virtually complete:
the pencil manuscript includes the composer’s own reminder to write out
a fair copy, and most of it already has pedalling and fingering
indications. Messiaen had an otherwise barren year in 1961: this piece
seems to have been intended as the start of a new piano cycle, in which
he would treat birdsong in a very different way, with the
transcriptions generating the harmonies rather than being imposed on
harmonic backgrounds that evoked the bird’s habitat (a technique used
in the Catalogue d’Oiseaux).
La Fauvette Passerinette represents a path Messiaen never followed
further. Large-scale orchestral commissions would take priority, and by
the time of La Fauvette des Jardins he was using songs in a different
way again. As Hill’s performance shows, however, it’s an utterly
convincing and thrilling piece of piano writing – a fierce, sustained
11-minute study as rigorous as Messiaen’s piano works of the late
1940s, and culminating in a ferocious toccata that squeezes every bit
of musical content out of the raw material.
Hill surrounds this first recording of his exciting discovery with
thoughtfully grouped sequences of 20th-century piano works, beginning
with Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes, from Miroirs, and including five more
pieces by Messiaen, including La Colombe (The Dove), from the early set
of Preludes, the first of the Île de Feu pieces from the Quatre Études
de Rythmes, and one portrait from Catalogue d’Oiseaux, the exuberant Le
Traquet Stapazin (The Black-eared Wheatear). There are also pieces by
some of Messiaen’s pupils – Stockhausen, Benjamin, Murail – as well as
by Dutilleux, Sculthorpe, Knussen, Julian Anderson, Douglas Young and
Takemitsu, all performed with the lucidity that is a hallmark of Hill’s
playing. Altogether, it is a hugely rewarding and important disc.
Time Stood Still in Wivenhoe
Many of you reading this article would never have heard of Wivenhoe, a small town and ‘civil parish’ (as Wikipedia puts it) nestled in northeastern Essex. However, if I mention Colchester, the oldest recorded town in England, the numbers shoot up. Wivenhoe is a mere 3 miles south east of Colchester where the Roman River Music Festival has been delighting people with top quality performances as well as a strong out reaching educational programme since its foundation in 2000.
The concert given on the 30th September at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Wivenhoe brought together four extraordinary musicians to perform Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) - Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, violin (standing in at short notice for Jennifer Pike), Guy Johnston, cello, Mark Simpson clarinet and Tom Poster, piano.
Mark Simpson, former BBC Young Musician and Composer of the Year, opened proceedings with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Cradle Song with Tom Poster, first prize winner at the Scottish International Piano Competition and keyboard sections of BBC Young Musician of the Year. With dimmed lighting to almost dark the duo created exactly the right atmosphere for the evening and their poised and piquant playing conveyed just enough unsentimental lyricism that this miniature gem requires.
Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor showcased the virtuosic talents of Guy Johnston (another BBC Young Musician of the Year) Tom Poster and Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (concert master of the Phiharmonia). This was a compelling performance played with a sense of spontaneity and often-breathtaking dramatic intensity that prompted spontaneous audience reaction between movements. The almost tangible telepathy between these musicians produced enthralling climaxes and changes of texture and mood without being confrontational.
After a well-deserved break, all four musicians joined together for Messiaen’s most performed work. From the opening bars of Liturgie de cristal it was clear that a special ‘chemistry’ was at work, which is surprising and rare for a group who I suspect, have not worked together as a unit for very long. This was chamber music at its very finest. Mark Simpson’s clarinet seemed, at times, to come from another world in ‘Abîme des oiseaux’. The long sustained tones truly did come from nothing and grew to a shattering fortissimo but with perfect tonal control throughout as were the fiendishly difficult 7 note echo figures that stride the entire range of the instrument and where many players come to grief.
I have heard Messiaen’s Quartet many (many!) times but never before have I experienced the ‘Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes’ played with such unabashed fury! ‘Louange à l’éternité de Jésus’ and ‘Louange de l’immortalité de Jésus’ for cello and piano and violin and piano respectively, demonstrated perfect timbral and temporal control from Tom Poster allowing Guy Johnston’s cello and Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s violin to float effortlessly in the heights.
This was a rare spiritually engaging performance where time really did seem to stand still. There was just a slight hint of tonal ‘fluff’ on the final violin note but by that time we were all on a higher plane.
All power to the elbow of Orlando Jopling for programming such a wonderful event in this quaint corner of the Essex countryside. We all eagerly await 2015!
St. François d’Assise in Madrid. 13th July 2011
Instalación: Emilia e Ilya Kabakov
Disposición escénica: Giuseppe Frigeni
Figurinista: Robby Duiveman
Iluminador Jean Kalman
Director del coro: Andrés Máspero
El angel: Camilla Tilling
Saint François: Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester
El leproso: Michael König
Frère Léon: Wiard Withold
Frère Massée: Tom Randle
Frère Éllie: Gerhard Siegel
Frère Bernard: Victor von Halem
Frère Sylvestre: Vladimir Kapshuk
Coro Titular del Teatro Real y Coro de la
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden - Freiburg
Musical Director: Sylvain Cambreling
Since the historical Paris premier of St François d’Assise in 1983 there appears an evolution of two particular trends when staging this immense musical epic. On the one hand directors stick pretty closely to Messiaen’s sometimes detailed production notes while on the other hand some stray so far that if it were not for the music one might sometimes wonder if we’re watching the same work.
Teatro Real’s Madrid offering most definitely falls into the former catagory. Madrid’s artistic director Gerard Mortier continues his ‘dream’ of staging St Francois wherever he goes.
Directing team Emilia and Ilya Kabakov brought their gigantic tilting dome first seen in the Ruhr Triennale production of 2003 to the Madrid Arena (this and the musical forces were deemed too large to house in Teatro Real’s theatre at opera square in the centre of Madrid).
Adapted sports spaces such as the arena are never ideal for ‘acoustic’ musical events even with the large forces employed by Messiaen. The orchestra and choir were reasonably well focused and balanced but some solo roles that were played out on the raised bridge platform to the front and sides struggled with projection at times in particular Gerhard Siegel as Brother Elías.
Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester was convincingly immersed throughout as St François and performed with rapt intensity at times. Tom Randle is always a pleasure to see in the role of Brother Masseo bringing a sense of spontaneity to the part although he had considerably less to do in this production than the Nederlandse Opera where he last appeared in the role. Camilla Tilling is by far my favourite Angel. She is familiar with this part now and one is totally transported by her firmly centered non-operatic sound with a purity found nowhere else. Her ‘Noh’-like movements are exactly as Messiaen wished and this is true of the entire production which was meditative rather than sensational – minimal rather than spectacular. Messiaen’s sense of time and tempo are often hard to grasp but musical director Sylvain Cambreling guided the 170 odd performers with security and expressive understanding.
The expanded SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden- Freiberg produced some fabulous textures and colours. However, discipline and etiquette was less impressive with members of the brass section holding conversations and even coming and going off stage became a distraction at times.
The static ‘stained glass’ dome added coloured lighting throughout -sometimes changing imperceptibly. This plus the candle-lit lighting in the choir gave the whole space an atmospheric spiritual feel. ‘Static’ is the adjective that keeps surfacing in relation to this production and at times one just wished for slightly more animation from characters or stage direction particularly in the Sermon to the Birds where Messiaen’s music is so highly animated we, the audience just had to use a little too much of our own imagination.
A huge bird cage completed the stage design with live doves that appeared to respond to light intensity and became animated when lit and less so when in shade. It was therefore a shame that they were not fully lit in the final 2 minuets of the opera – it would have been heart warming to see them joyously flapping to the illuminated brilliance of the final C major chord!
It is a shame that some of the Spanish opera going clientele could not stay the course as they would surely have been spiritually rewarded at the end of this highly successful production that may never be seen again in Spain for many years.
© Malcolm Ball
'Messiaen's cosmic bells, tolling in a Steinway grand'
Read the Boston.com review of Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus performed by PAAVALI JUMPPANEN.
Read Pete Matthew's informed and illuminating reviews of Messiaen events that took place in teh USA during 2008.
(LA Phil performing Des Canyons aux Etoiles (scroll to end))
(Messiaen Discovery Day at Carnegie)
(St. Louis Symphony performing Turangalila-Symphony)
(Gail Archer playing Mediatations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity)
(Tashi performing Quartet for the End of Time)
(Concerts at La Trinite, Dresden Staatskapelle w/Myun-Whun Chung)
(Saint Francois in Amsterdam)
(MET Orchestra performing Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum )
John Scott performing the complete organ music at St. Thomas Church:
BBC Proms 27th July 2008 Royal Albert Hall, London UK.
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ
Gerard Bouwhuis piano
Adam Walker flute
Julian Bliss clarinet
Sonia Wieder-Atherton cello
Colin Currie xylophone
Adrian Spillett marimba
Richard Benjafield vibraphone
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer conductor.
If like me you’re a Messiaen enthusiast you’ve probably scanned the concert listings from year to year hoping to find that elusive live performance of the maitre’s La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ without any luck whatsoever. Then, in this centenary year we find no less than 10 performances taking place in countries from Japan to Finland and no less than 4 performances in Germany by a youth orchestra! I can’t resist the bus analogy – you wait for ages and then of course 10 come at once!
The BBC Proms must be applauded for their wide ranging coverage of Messiaen’s output and all power to Roger Wright’s elbow in putting together overall a superb season of concerts.
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ is a huge work even by Messiaen’s standards and requires huge forces hence the rarity of performances. The music is peppered with Messiaen trademarks – the slowly moving blocks of granite-like sound interspersed with plain-chant and birdsong but there are also moments of harmonic character and blends of colour never before heard in his music. Who apart from Messiaen would begin a 14 movement oratorio with tuned gongs?! He also continues his quest to view ‘time’ in a different perspective perhaps more akin to Stockhausen’s view where a ‘moment’ can last a micro second or an eternity.
Thierry Fischer steered the 200 strong choir and vast orchestra as precisely and as focused as a captain of a super tanker through the Panama Canal contrasting moments of intense delicacy with awesome power. The 100 minute work was performed with just a short pause at the end of the first seven movements (septenary as Messiaen quotes). The seven soloists demonstrated a complete understanding and intuitive insight with the music, not always an easy task when there are some lengthy tacets in all parts at times. Particular mention should be made of pianist Gerard Bouwhuis who stood in for Dénes Várjon at short notice – not an enviable task. The tight ensemble playing of Colin Currie and Adrian Spillett on tuned percussion was breathtaking.
The somewhat unforgiving acoustic of the Albert Hall just led to some loss of sustained power in the fortissimo endings at times prompting me to think that this work needs a slightly longer reverberation time like that of a medium sized cathedral to attain that glorious stained-glass effect Messiaen so loved.
Saint François d’Assise. De Nederlandse Opera, Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam. 1-6-2008.
“Know the joy of the blessed by gentleness of colour and melody…and may there be opened for thee the secrets of glory!”
These are the words sung by the Angel in Messiaen’s ‘musical spectacle’ (his description) and unlike some recent stagings of Saint François d’Assise, Der Nederlanse Opera production focuses on the words colour and melody with Pierre Audi and his production team ever mindful of Messiaen’s intentions.
From the opening scene (La Croix) the lighting and set designs are inventive and appropriate without us having to delve into the recesses of our minds to work out what is going on.
The huge expanded Residentie Orkest sprawled from the rear of the stage with musical director Ingo Metzmacher plying his craft from centre stage with great authority and control throughout and thus the orchestra became a genuine character in the opera. Remarkably this sonic powerhouse of 100 plus musicians never once over-powered the voices, a testament to the genius of Messiaen’s orchestration, the sensitivity of Ingo Metzmacher and the acoustics of the Muziektheater.
Camilla Tilling (L’Ange) gave a compelling performance both vocally and theatrically. The 5th tableau (L’Ange musicien) in particular left the entire Muziektheater audience utterly breathless and mesmerised with her exquisite vocal line complemented by the ‘other-worldliness’ of the three Ondes Martenot’s and moving with the elegance and ritual of a Noh actor fulfilled Messiaen’s every wish.
Angelo Figus’s costumes reflected Messiaen’s vision appropriately without compromise or over indulgence and only the Leper costume lacked a little impact in terms of repulsiveness.
Rod Gilfry (Saint François) delivered just the right amount of humility when needed in this mammoth role and despite a troublesome throat at times managed to portray vocally the Saint’s despair, anguish and joy to great effect.
All the Fransiscan Brothers responded well to their individual characterization’s, however it was Tom Randle (Frère Massée), who is depicted as rather naïve and innocent, was in danger of ‘stealing the show’ with his witty interactions and mannerisms. Indeed the one ‘masterstroke’ of Pierre Audi’s production was to introduce a group of children in the ‘Sermon to the birds’ where Randle really came into his own with the children clearly enjoying the playful banter. For me this scene communicated and worked far better than any ornithological wildlife film footage ever can.
Great use was made of the space and various levels in the Muziektheater with minimal but effective scene changes smoothly articulated.
The choir of De Nederlandse Opera were really made to feel an integral part of the production and not just a static sound source at the back of the stage. Their disciplined and well drilled performance driven by Martin Wright.
Pierre Audi has brought Saint François d’Assise into the 21st century while at the same time retaining the spirit of Messiaen’s intentions and has succeeded in highlighting the human and spiritual world of Saint François that made the 5 hours of this opera seem like a celestial ‘moment’.
5th March 2008 West Road Concert Hall
CUMS 1 Orchestra – Matthew Schellhorn piano – Jacques Tchamkerten Ondes Martenot – Baldur Brönnimann Guest conductor.
When the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain tackled Turangalila Symphonie at the 2001 Proms to much deserved acclaim, we all marvelled at how an orchestra made up of people no older than19 years of age could bring so much musicality, verve and excitement to this work in the midst of, it has to be said, some rather workman like performances presented by some seasoned professional orchestras around this time.
It is generally accepted that NYO is the cream of our musical youth with the highest standards of teaching and coaching, so could any other aspiring young person’s ensemble achieve such standards? The answer is most definitely ‘yes’ as was experienced by the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) concert at West Road Concert Hall.
Baldur Brönnimann directed with authority if lacking a little dynamism and ensemble, after some slight shaky moments during movement two, gained cohesion and confidence.
There was plenty of power when needed despite the somewhat reduced numbers in some sections. Messiaen specifies (rather optimistically!) for example 10 double basses rather than the 7 here although there was no loss of bottom right from the opening bars in the lower strings. The woodwind section was clear, bright and well articulated especially the capricious bassoon and piccolo in Chant d’amour 2 and the clarinets positively blossomed in the ‘flower theme’ with beautiful tone and control. Only the brass section suffered a little from depletion and the stratospheric D trumpet was missed in the climactic bar before the final Trés lent of the Final. Special mention should be made of the percussion section who in a restricted and confined space covered everything with great aplomb.
Soloists Matthew Schellhorn and Jacques Tchamkerten are becoming quite a ‘team’ now and who wouldn’t want this pair as part of any Messiaen ‘team’? Matthew began the evening’s proceedings with a lucid and fact packed presentation of the Symphonie that concluded with Jacques Tchamkerten introducing the Ondes Martenot with both Matthew and Jacques performing a few bars of Jardin du sommeil d’amour demonstrating how sensitive Jacques Tchamkerten is as a player and the Ondes Martenot is as an instrument.
Matthew Schellhorn’s total command of this virtuoso piano part was never more aptly apparent than in the cadenza at the end of Joie du sang des étoiles – totally breathtaking!
This was a special evening for CUMS and one that all involved should be proud and hold dear to their hearts for a long time. A great achievement.
22nd March 2008 King’s College Chapel.
CUCO – Peter Stevens organ - Choral Scholars of Clare College - Choral Scholars of Gonville and Caius College – Matthew Schellhorn piano – Jacques Tchamkerten Ondes Martenot – Stephen Cleobury conductor.
We knew we were in for a special evening right from the opening bars of Apparition de l’Église éternelle given by Peter Stevens at the mighty King’s organ. Peter Steven’s well controlled crescendo culminating in the Harrison and Harrison awesome 32’ almost literally made the earth move for us! This is the kind of building to hear this work and Stevens made the most of the massive space and reverberation that was both moving and awe-inspiring.
Singing and chanting in unison as the vocal part requires here can have as many pitfalls as complex harmonic performing but this choir with it’s crystalline diction and faultless intonation was way up there with the finest.
Praise indeed, but praise well deserved.
Turangalila Symphonie Philharmonia Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Jacques Tchamkerten, Ondes Martenot. Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on Sea. 15 February 2008
Southend-on-sea is not the first location to spring to mind when thinking of a performance of Messiaen’s mighty Turangalila Symphonie. However, if one thinks of the gayety of children playing on the sun-kissed seafront in summer, the noisy cacophony of the fairground and young lovers strolling along the promenade at night bathed in Southend’s famous multi-fluorescent and colourful illuminations (second only to Blackpool) the heart of Turangalila isn’t that far removed!
The Philharmonia are key players in the South Bank Centre Messiaen Festival driven by the tireless and seemingly unflagging Pierre-Laurent Aimard as artistic Festival director. This team has and will be presenting Turangalila many times throughout the year and it was refreshing to experience such an event in the Essex seaside town.
The main draw back to mounting such a concert at the Cliffs Pavilion is that by nature it is more suited to musical theatre where the orchestra is positioned below in front of the stage whereby audience members seated in the stalls (which is un-raked until half way up the auditorium) can hear a good balance of vocal on stage and music from a ‘pit’ position below. Having a full orchestra on stage meant that those in the first part of the stalls experience some imbalance because brass, percussion and some woodwinds that are behind the strings consequently get a little lost. Having said this, I’m sure that these balance problems did not arise if seated in the circle or the boxes.
Because of the restricted room on stage the orchestra was somewhat reduced in numbers and even then the percussion department especially seemed to lack the necessary elbow room needed to project some moments in the music and it was a shame that all the 'gamelan' type instruments (keyboard percussion) could not be altogether (the vibraphone being at the side).
Esa-Pekka Salonen did a sterling job of holding everything together in what must have seemed an almost straightjacket situation. Salonen knows this music well now and drew out some beautiful nuances from woodwind and strings as well as some amazingly exciting tutti moments. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve heard the last chord of Joie de Sang des Étoiles held for so long since the early days of Maurice La Roux! There was one slight breathtaking moment of the panic kind when in Turangalila 2 the tam tam seemed to take forever to enter and crescendo before the final seven bars.
Only the ninth movement: Turangalila 3 I thought lost a little mystery due to a rather too well paced tempo.
I have found Jacques Tchamkerten to be one of the most sensitive ondists around. His playing was always well balanced even in the fortissimo climaxes, which in the wrong hands can be ear splittingly loud.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard makes the virtuoso piano part look effortless now and one is reminded of Yvonne Loriod in her hey day with that total and absolute involvement with not just the piano part but the entire orchestral canvas. What is more extraordinary about Aimard is the mental and physical work-load of performing the complete Vingt Regards and goodness knows how many Turangalila’s in such a short space of time, as well as overseeing the entire Messiaen Festival. A truly super-human task and we in Great Britain should be so thankful that this Messiaen and Loriod taught Frenchman chose to grace us with his presence for the centenary.
The good people of Southend were treated to a particularly fine bonus in the form of a pre concert talk and performance of Quatour pour la Fin du Temps no less, given by soloists of the Philharmonia (Barnaby Robson, clarinet, James Clark, violin, David Cohen, cello) and Messiaen aficionado Matthew Schellhorn, piano.
This was a heart felt and meaningful performance full of colour and tight ensemble. Despite what looked like Barnaby Robson suffering from the British winter he draw some stunning colours and dynamics from the clarinet in Abime des oiseaux where notes seemed to literally emerge from the depths!
So, fish and chips and candyfloss aside, Messiaen was put firmly on the Southend-on- sea menu on Friday the 15th. Let’s hope for more here in the future.
© Malcolm Ball
4 play Messiaen magnificently
By Edward Reichel
Deseret Morning News
NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES, Utah Museum of Fine Arts Auditorium, Sunday 22-4-2007
Olivier Messiaen's impact on music is enormous. The link between impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel and today, Messiaen has served as the inspiration for scores of composers whom he taught or who were influenced by him.
A prolific composer in every genre, Messiaen, who died in 1992 at the age of 84, left a tremendous legacy. Yet surprisingly, his music today goes largely unnoticed and unplayed, not just here in Salt Lake City , but also around the country.
Why is that?
One reason is because he wrote works of great length and complexity. But underneath that lies music of infinite beauty and simplicity. You need to look beyond the surface of Messiaen's music to discover the key to unlocking its secrets. Once you have done that, you can get a solid grasp of what makes Messiaen's music unique.
There is no question that Messiaen created his own musical universe, one that is made up of many different elements and influences. Chief among those is his religiousness. Messiaen was a devout Catholic, and that aspect of his being informs everything he wrote. Yet Messiaen is not a composer of sacred music in the traditional sense. Rather, he finds the divine presence in everything around him.
Messiaen would have been 100 next year. In anticipation of the worldwide centennial celebration, Salt Lake City has taken the lead and is presenting a weeklong festival devoted to the great French composer. The festival got under way Sunday with NOVA and concludes Friday and Saturday with performances by the Utah Symphony of "Des canyons aux etoiles. ..." In between, there will be concerts featuring works for organ and piano, including the monumental "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus," performed by Utah Symphony pianist Jason Hardink.
Sunday, Hardink was joined by symphony colleagues Joe Evans, violin, Noriko Kishi, cello, and Lee Livengood , clarinet, for a sublime reading of Messiaen's early "Quatuor pour la fin du Temps" ("Quartet for the End of Time").
The four musicians played magnificently. They brought insight and depth to their performance, which was intense, emotionally charged and wonderfully expressive. There was a luminescence to their playing that powerfully conveyed the deep spirituality of the work.
Livengood's playing was especially beautiful in the third movement for solo clarinet, "Abyss of the Birds," while Kishi and Evans captured the mystery and otherworldliness of "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" and "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," respectively. And Hardink's playing throughout was compelling and incisive. Evans and Kishi opened the concert with Ravel's stark Sonata for Violin and Cello, which they played with intense expression. The third movement in particular was notable for its heartfelt emotion and poignancy.
NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES concert brochure .pdf
Benjamin Fourie performed Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa on July 5th 2006.
This review is by ©Christine Lucia a guest writer for the CUE festival newspaper. 7 July 2006.
Twenty peeps of restrained Messiaen-ic ecstasy
The last of the big piano cycles on the New Music Indaba was Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus, (Twenty Contemplations of the Christ Child) played by Benjamin Fourie on Wednesday night. In comparison to Alvin Curran's Inner Cities and Maria de Alvear's Urbaum, this is an earlier juggernaut from 1944, more user-friendly, its lingering relationship to French impressionism and German serialism making it almost 'old' - for new music, that is.
On the other hand, Vingt Regards (known in the trade as 'Twenty Peeps") was in its day revolutionary. It draws on rhythms from Indian classical music that lend surprising metrical twists and turns, on birdsong that gives the melodic material a certain 'flightiness', on artificially constructed modes (scales) that generate a whole new harmonic language, and on a concept of melodic unity that hearkens back to Brahms.
There are three main themes, Fourie explained in his introduction, and we could follow them Ariadne-like through the two and a half hours it took to play: the Theme of God, the Theme of the Star and the Cross and the Theme of Chords. These lent a narrativity that underscores the composer's vision and sense of the drama of Catholicism.
The last peep (Gaze of the Church of Love) is a veritable dual between God's theme and a theme of night: a Messiaen-ic representation of the struggle between good and evil.
Fourie divided the twenty pieces into two parts, ending the first half with Ten; 'Gaze of the Spirit of Joy'. This and Six: 'By Him Everything Was Made' are two of the more apocalyptic sections where Fourie never for a moment lost control of either the music or the integrity of his conception.
One sometimes wanted him to throw caution to the winds, take risks for the sake of greater power and momentum, succumb to the violence we could all hear in the music, which after all represents the spirit of the Almighty and the creation of the world. Where Fourie scored was in moments where ecstasy needed to sound restrained. His sonorous tone colours were generally admirably rounded, the build ups of crescendi awesome, even if more pianissimo would be welcome among the falling timbres of Messiaen's universe.
Composed in 1944 during the German occupation of Paris, this work is rarely performed in its entirety. But Messiaen conceived it as a whole and it was premiered as such, the composer giving a commentary between movements much as Fourie did.
Some would say this interrupts the flow, but for all its spiritual flights of ecstasy and cataclysmic harmonic and dynamic world it generates, Vingt Regards is also an earthly piece.
It makes us feel our smallness in the face of the divine, and Fourie's take on it, his almost brutal rootedness, stolid pacing, almost pedantic loyalty to the notes, spoke of that humanity.
It was a courageous and haunting performance, and we look forward to the growth of Fourie's conception as he repeats it, and eventually to a recording from this fine South African artist.
My first encounter with Matthew Schellhorn was at the 2002 Messiaen Conference in Sheffield where he presented a paper entitled ‘Les Noces and Trois petites liturgies: An Assessment of Stravinsky’s Influence on Messiaen’. A brave subject to tackle since Messiaen always publicly refuted any links between the two works. However, Matthew’s analysis and research threw new light on the relationship between the two works citing many cross influences between Stravinsky and Messiaen. At the same conference Matthew also made two concert appearances. One along side Peter Hill performing Visions de l’Amen and the other a dazzling account of La Fauvette des jardins a performance that prompted Chris Dingle of BBC Music Magazine to describe as ‘ a cherished memory for those privileged enough to experience it’. For me, I was totally blown away by the sheer energy and power injected into his reading of this incredibly technically demanding music. This was to be repeated with no less gloss in his debut recital at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank (6th April 2006) as part of the Fresh Young Musician’s Platform series.
It is this ‘power’ in Schellhorn’s playing that sets his interpretations apart from others who are bold enough to tackle these mighty works.
Apart from La Fauvette, Matthew performed four pieces from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux: Le Loriot, Le Traquet stapazin, L’Alouette calandrelle and Le Courlis cendré.
Matthew Schellhorn has the ability to transport his audience to the lakes, mountains and habitats of Messiaen's marvellous birds and we were all touched by his sensitive and masterly interpretations, a fact supported by the enthusiastic reception. As Peter Hill said in his pre concert talk shared with fellow Messiaen authority Nigel Simeone, ‘these works are so rarely performed due to their technical and virtuosic demands’ but Schellhorn surmounted these demands and presented an evening of poetic and musical imagery that, to quote Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, 'was everything Messiaen would have wished'.
Even during the most complex and dense passages in the music Schellhorn displays the sensitivity and timbre control that bring all the species to life with crystalline clarity. However, the birds are only a part of this music. The landscape, habitats and backdrops are just as important, and it is this aspect that Schellhorn makes the most of and one really feels a sense of the grandeur of the mountains, the crashing of waves, the enormity of nature etc.
When I met with Matthew a month or so before the Purcell Room concert we spoke about his piano education and he revealed that he was 16 years old when he first began to work and study Messiaen’s piano music seriously beginning with Ile de Feu 1, Premiére communion de la Vierge (Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus) and Le Courlis cendré (Catalogue d’oiseaux). His love for this music continued to developed and in 2001 he was able to study with Yvonne Loriod in Paris.
He said that the one thing that really came out of these studies was reassurance. Apart from odd technical details, Loriod imparted great personal insight into the music and reassured him that he was doing everything right. A great accolade!
Matthew Schellhorn’s repertoire is wide reaching performing established piano fair by the likes of Beethoven, Chopin and Haydn to 21st century pioneers such as Jeremy Thurlow, James MacMillan and Ian Wilson.
Messiaen l'empreinte d'un géant.
ISBN-10: 2840495112 - ISBN-13: 978-2840495116 Pub. Editions Seguier in French.
Nicholas Armfelt writes:
If I tell you that Catherine Lechner-Reydellet writes in a slightly awkwardly poetic French and that she makes a terrible lot of blunders ("François" instead of Pascal Messiaen), dozens (literally) of proper names mis-spelt ("Aymard", Charles "Yves" etc. etc.), you may expect my judgement of the book and its editor to be pretty negative.
Slovenly editing. However the bulk of the book is fascinating and informative because she has assembled a whole lot of "témoignages". These 'witnesses" all write very well about their recollections of Messiaen. You get a brief biography of the contributor and a list of his/her works. The "témoignages" take a couple of pages each. Lots and lots of witnesses, all of them interesting, covering a wonderfully wide range of subjects. Messiaen as conductor(!), for example. And so very many of them praise Messiaen as an incredibly good pianist. Contributors include Louis Thiry, Raffi Ourgandjian, Sigune von Osten, Georges Prêtre (on the first performance of Chronochromie)..etc.
I was terribly moved by the testimony of Odette Gartenlaub, the very first pupil to be inscribed in Messiaen's class at the Paris Conservatoire in 1941, the touching letter from Claude Delvincourt telling her that she had to leave because she was Jewish, and the three imploring letters from Messiaen asking her (without success) to rejoin after the Liberation.
The book includes numerous letters by Messiaen and by Yvonne Loriod, all of them reproduced both in Facsimile and printed transcription. Of particular interest is the long section by Gaëtan Puaud on the Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije.
Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone
Series: Landmarks in Music Since 1950 Ashgate ISBN: 0 7546 5630 6
This is the fourth in the series ‘Landmarks in Music since 1950’, series editor Wyndham Thomas and published by Ashgate. The others being: Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 – Louis Andriessen: Da Staat and Gyorgy Kurtág: The Saying of Péter Bornemisza op.7. A fifth volume, Nicholas Maw: Odyssey is to be published in 2008.
Each book features a general introduction of the work under discussion, details of commission and composition history, contextual discussion of stylistic, generic and international influences and precedents, an analysis of the work, survey of its reception, a bibliography and discography and most importantly a CD recording.
OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Oiseaux exotiques shows Ashgate’s ongoing commitment to the work of Messiaen and the well-honed team of Hill and Simeone provide a highly readable and communicable account of this seminal work. Even in the analysis (Commentary) chapter of the book where often in these textbooks language and technical detail soar to heady heights understood only by those in revered university chambers, this is pitched ideally and is approachable from enthusiasts as well as students and academia.
Although the book is centred on Oiseaux exotiques, Hill and Simeone give detailed accounts of Messiaen’s life and work leading up to its composition and first performance. Facts that hitherto have never found their way into the biographies and text books in the past. Of particular interest here is the origins and birth of Domain Musical where, in typical Hill and Simeone style, they unearth detailed facts and dates mapping its development under Boulez and the setting up of the concert series at the Petit Marigny Theatre.
We are also treated to a lengthy précis of Oiseaux exotique’s predecessor Reveil des Oiseaux and for the first time in print we see Messiaen’s preliminary bird notations transcribed from his many cahiers and trace their development into the works. There are audio examples of these on the accompanying CD played impeccably by Peter Hill. The complete performance of Oiseaux exotiques is taken from the original Vega recording that was made at the world premiere in the Petit Marigny Theatre 1956.
In the chapter: First Performance, Reception and Publication, Hill and Simeone draw our attention to some American… I almost hesitate to call them composers, who were working with similar and sometimes the same bird recordings Messiaen was using around the same time. Jim Fassett who became director of CBS Radio’s music department in the 1940s produced an LP with the title Music and Bird Songs. Fasset had an obvious interest in ornithology and was enthused by the songs of the Wood Thrush, Cardinal etc but he manipulated the songs by slowing them down and changing the pitch to produce his own rather banal popular song melodies. Much worse than this and excruciatingly embarrassing to listen to was Johan Dalgas Frisch’s work where birdsongs were admirably collected as field recordings but then were added to tunes such as Sukiyaki and Swanee River! We have only to thank heaven that Messiaen never went down that road!
We are beginning to see a wealth of Messiaen material now leading up to the centenary in 2008 and a good deal of this is ‘British made’ thanks to the likes of Christopher Dingle, Stephen Broad and of course Nigel Simeone and Peter Hill. The book is presented in the usual high quality Ashgate style with beautifully set musical examples. Perhaps the only one wish is that a few plates of the actual birds would not have gone a miss in such a study although a small internet trawl will reveal these unlike the treasured material contained within these leaves.
MESSIAEN by Peter Hill & Nigel Simeone. Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-10907-5 Rrp £29.95 Hard Cover
This is very ‘special’ book. ‘Special’ because unlike most books that have been written about Olivier Messiaen this is the first to reveal the almost day to day working life of one of the twentieth century’s most important musical giants. We know there is something ‘special’ in store just by the book’s cover photograph of Messiaen – to my knowledge rarely seen.
Pianist Peter Hill and musicologist Nigel Simeone have long associations with both Messiaen and more especially Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen and Peter Hill is well known for the almost definitive study of the music of Messiaen, The Messiaen Companion (see bibliography). Nigel Simeone has written many accounts and delved deep to produce some of the most authoritative writings on Messiaen and French music generally.
Where previous accounts have sought to analyse Messiaen’s oeuvres with sparse accounts of his private life, Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone for the first time have been granted access to his private papers and diaries all made possible by the permission of the composer’s widow Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. And by ‘private life’ I don’t mean what Messiaen had for breakfast or the colour of his socks but rather facts about his childhood, relationships with his mother, father, brother, aunts and working companions throughout his life, all contribute to a greater understanding of the character and temperament of the man.
Hill and Simeone tread a very bold path from before Messiaen’s birth, through that special mother son relationship into his teens, the passionate but troubled first marriage to Claire Delbos and the birth of their son and the first meeting with Yvonne Loriod, (who went from Messiaen’s page turner to second wife and major interpreter of his piano music), and traces Messiaen’s spiritual and indeed physical journey up to his death.
There are some very moving, often heart-wrenching letters from Messiaen to Claire during the war years and his time in Vichy and the book reveals the intense love, passion and yearning Messiaen had for Claire and his son Pascal always overlooked and by passed by in earlier biographies as Messiaen was fiercely guarded when it came to his private life. The other ‘special’ feature of this book is the publication of many photographs hitherto unseen but for the immediate family. Some of these early photographs at Petichet (Messiaen’s summer retreat near the Alps in south east France) are charged with a romantic enchantment showing father, mother and son like any other family's holiday snapshot such as the one with Messiaen simply sitting in a deck chair reading. Later in the book though it is interesting that Hill & Simeone chose to present photos of Claire and Yvonne on facing pages (pp. 110-111) where Claire’s image is one of forlorn almost vacant desperation and that of Yvonne young and radiant at the piano. One almost feels the stress and irrepressible emotions Messiaen was experiencing through the 40s and 50s a time of the most tortuous personal life but also a time that yielded a plethora of music starting with Visions de l’Amen through to the Catalogue d’Oiseaux.
Apart from the archive photographs previously unseen I found Peter Hill’s own photographs most interesting for example the Messiaen family house at Nantes, the Grenoble shots and those of Fuligny.
The diaries and papers highlight the initial thoughts and framework of many works and give a fascinating insight into how pieces such as Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus, La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ and Livre du Saint Sacrement evolved and grew to their definitive proportions.
There were moments in the book that had me laughing out loud especially when Loriod and Messiaen were departing for London and the taxi that dropped them at the Gare de Nord drove off with their suitcase in the boot which had both of them shouting after the taxi to no avail. Then when Jeanne Loriod suffered an electric shock from her Ondes Martenot when rain got in it at a rather doomed attempt at Turangalila Symphonie in the open air. I know one shouldn’t laugh but I gather she was unharmed - just alarmed!
I also shed a tear when reading the accounts of Messiaen’s declining health and the excruciating pain he must have been in when completing his final works. This really is a case of a man suffering for his art to bring joy to others. And one mustn’t forget the suffering of Yvonne Loriod. Not only the mental suffering caused by the ill health and eventual death of her husband but her own life threatening illness in 1963 resulting in two blood transfusions and hysterectomy with the couple having to face the fact that they would never have children.
The book highlights the punishing concert schedules Loriod and Messiaen undertook, taking them all over the world performing the most demanding programmes which must surely have had an adverse affect on their health. Having said this, the couple did always look forward to their summer retreat at Petichet where Messiaen would do most of his composing and at the same time unwind and get back to nature.
Apart from the diaries and private papers, Hill & Simeone have drawn on many other sources and accounts from latter day researchers for example Stephen Broad, Jacques Tchamkerten, Jean Boivan as well as personal communications from Loriod and close friends such as George Benjamin and Roger Muraro.
Those of us who have experienced Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone in talks or lectures will know just how engaging and communicative they are and this is reflected in the tone and pace of the writing throughout – totally captivating.
I spotted just a couple of minor misnomers. One was photograph 166 which states: Messiaen and Gary Kettel when in fact it is Messiaen and James Holland. The other is note 10 pp185 - the first recording of Visions de l’Amen was recorded by Contrepoint (Granti neuf E. Ploix-Musique Disquaires, 48 Rue St. Placide, Paris) on 78s then transferred to LP by Dial in New York a couple of years later.
My one thought was that perhaps the book ends all too suddenly. The final tribute by Boulez is most definitely apt but I felt I wanted to know a little more of Messiaen after his death. For example the decision to elect Naji Hakim as successor to Messiaen at Trinite, the work of Loriod-Messiaen completing the Traité, archiving Messiaen’s music and papers and so on – or maybe I was so enthralled I just wanted to read on and on!!
Yale have produced a book of the highest quality and Hill and Simeone have achieved a work whose contents many of us thought Olivier Messiaen had taken to that great rainbow in the sky. Bravo Peter and Nigel!
© Malcolm Ball Sept. 05
Copyright © 2000 by the Music Library Association, Inc. All rights reserved.
|"The writing and first performance of French composer Olivier Messiaen's
Quartet for the End of Time, in a German POW camp in the bitter winter of
1941, is one of the great stories of 20th century music. Ohio University
music professor Rischin has gone to heroic lengths to separate the facts
from the legends that have grown up about it. Some of these legends, as
she demonstrates, were encouraged by the composer himself. . . . Rischin
tracked down the elderly Pasquier and violinist Jean La Boulaire (who lived
his postwar life as an actor) and also talked to Messiaen's widow and Akoka's
surviving family. Oddly, none of them had been interviewed [before] about
the occasion . . . . These interviews show a remarkable picture of life
at a desperate time . . . this is a fascinating, and finally believable,
account of a remarkable occasion."
|"Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time premiered on January
15, 1941, in Stalag VIII A, outside of Gorlitz in Silesia. Inmate Messiaen
(1902-92). . . based three movements on earlier-composed material and wrote
five in the camp. A friendly German guard provided Messiaen with paper,
pen, and rehearsal time with the other inmate musicians. Rischin carefully
describes conditions in the camp, how Messiaen was able to compose, the
eventual release or escape of the four musicians, and the musical ideas
expressed in the quartet's rhythms, tempi, and sonorities. . . . A concise
book full of insight into a chamber music classic and its first performers.
|"In Rebecca Rischin's excellent . . . For the End of Time, Messiaen's
detachment from temporality emerges in high relief when, during World War
II, he wrote large parts of his ethereal Quartet for the End of Time while
a prisoner of war in a German camp.
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer
|"Rebecca Rischin's illuminating look at the participating personalities
and historical context of the creation of Olivier Messiaen's Quatour pour
la fin du temps, one of the greatest artistic triumphs of the twentieth
century, provides valuable insight into the complex circumstances surrounding
this extraordinary premiere and allows us a very special glimpse into the
warmth and strength of the human spirit."
-Kent Nagano, Music Director and Principal Conductor, Deutsches Symphonie Orchestra, Berlin, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, and Los Angeles Opera
|"Messiaen's Quartet was given the most unusual and moving premiere
of any in the twentieth century. The exaggerations which followed have distorted
the event, and in some ways overshadowed the art. Rebecca Rischin has set
all that straight, restored the truth of the occasion, and reasserted the
power of this stunning music. It turns out the cello actually had four strings,
Stalag VIII A was no death camp, and the work's enduring mythology was also
composed by Messiaen. This fascinating new book shows how, and why, this
came to pass."
-Charles Barber, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
|Rebecca Rischin has created a work of great
substance by securing interviews with all family members of each of the
quartets performers the Pasquiers (those of the famous Trio
Pasquier) the Akoka family and even the elusive La Boulaire
who after the war became an actor and assumed a new identity, and of course
Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen and her archive materials left by Messiaen himself.
Rischin explores in great detail each players personality, philosophical and political ideologies and how it affected their relationships throughout the time of their captivity.
She draws on the not inconsiderable archive of Hannalore Laurewald which contain photos, documents and plans of Stalag VIIIA (many of which are reproduced in the book) and to my knowledge never before published. She also manages to track down prisoners who were in the audience at the time of the premiere of Quartet for the End of Time, some of whom recall the event with great passion and tearful recollection.
EMI Classics 0946 385275 2 7
Les Rarissimes d'Olivier Messiaen is a 2CD release of early archive recordings of Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine, Les Offrandes oubliées, two Vingt Regards extracts, three Préludes, Visions de l'Amen and Quatre Etudes de rythme.
This is a much eagerly awaited release of early recordings of these works made available by EMI as part of their Les Rarissimes series.
The Trois petite liturgies recording presented here is not the premiere recording made with Roger Desormiere in 1945 (this was made available on LYS 310) but an 'equally probing performance' to use Jean-Charles Hoffelé's words from the booklet notes made in 1954 with the Loriod sisters, Ensemble Vocal Marcel Couraud and Orchestre de chambre André Girard conducted by Couraud. The recording is surprisingly clear with good detail throughout the ensemble with the Ondes Martenot quite prominent. The performance generally is 'safe' and detailed perhaps lacking a little 'gay abandon' in the second movement often found in subsequent recordings but bearing in mind that in 1954 this work was still in its infancy and probably better to be safe than sorry! The only slight let down is an out of tune celeste but if you can put up with that this is a fine document.
Speaking of fine documents Desormiere's Les Offrandes oubliees is a premiere recording and it's wonderful that this has at last seen the light of day. Yes the recording is relatively lo-fi but to hear this work in historical context is reward enough.
1947 was the first time Messiaen's piano music could be heard on disc. Pathé recorded extracts of Vingt Regards sur Enfant Jesus and the Préludes all of which are represented here with Yvonne Loriod as pianist. It is perhaps Le baiser de l'enfant Jesus more than Regard de l'Esprit de joie that demonstrates Loriod's command and fluid sensitivity to Messiaen's music and prepares the ground for the ensuing years of piano writing that was to become her hallmark as foremost Messiaen interpreter. I just wish EMI had left a little more time to catch our breath between the two Vingt Regard tracks! Loriod by this time had given many performances of Vingt Regards and the Préludes so the performances are well attuned with the poetic sensitivity that Messiaen intended.
This recording of Visions de l'Amen and the Quatre Etudes de rythme are not the first to be committed to CD (the first being on FMR CD 120) so one would have wished that EMI could have dug out some early radio broadcast performances that have never (and maybe never will) see the light of day.
The Complete Organ Works by Dame Gillian Weir.
The complete cycle - which Messiaen personally urged Gillian Weir to commit to CD - was recorded on the famous organ of Aarhus Cathedral in Denmark during January and February 1994: the original recordings were made in association with BBC Radio 3. Read more in writings and articles
Warner Classics 2564 62162-2
When I was first exposed to the music of Messiaen many years ago now, it was through the French recordings of the Vega and Erato records. It’s easy to forget just how difficult these recordings were to get hold of in those days even though France was a mere 24 miles away, record imports were rare and expensive. Of course nowadays we can obtain a recording from the other side of the world within a couple of days (immediately if it’s available online) such was not the case then. In the mid 80s Erato had the good sense to put together a 17 CD box set of all these early and sometimes first recordings of their Messiaen catalogue. These were presented in a bright rainbow coloured box with all the CDs in hard jewel cases each with their own booklet so the size was not unlike that of a car battery and almost weighing as much! As with many contemporary releases around this time it was soon deleted and became impossible to find. It is these recordings that Warner Classics have resurrected and have had the even better sense to present them in slip in wallets and fold out box where in this case the accompanying booklet weighs more than the CDs and takes up far less space.
So I grew up with a lot of this material and although some are more than forty years old now they still stand up as marvellous interpretations. Yes there have been many newer performances as we enter the 21st century and all have merits of one kind or another but we must remember that many of these Erato recordings were supervised by Messiaen himself and this I’m sure gives that ‘something special’ element that is sometimes lacking in present day performances.
The Eglise Notre-Dame du Liban was never that well sound proofed and the Paris traffic still rumbles by as Yvonne Loriod bravely soldiers through the Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Rather more disturbing is that Warner decided to introduce a ‘noise gate’ during the transfer of Le Loriot in an attempt to eradicate some pre echo that was present on the original recordings. This has resulted in the natural reverberation of the piano being ‘sucked’ out to an artificial silence after the opening chords. I personally would have lived with the slight pre echo and retained the piano resonance but there you are! And don’t try to skip directly to track 4 of CD17 (Des canyons aux étoiles) as you’ll miss the attack of the first chord.
There are a couple of new additions to the set. Turangalila Symphonie and Réveil des Oiseaux are recordings made by Kent Nagano after the composer's death. This reading of Turangalila is surely one of the most exciting but for a mis-placed cymbal crash in the last movement that presumably couldn’t be repaired due it being a live recording.
These minor points aside, this set is an invaluable tool to any student or listener coming to Messiaen for the first time as well as seasoned specialists who missed out on the original set. The booklet contains all the original notes (many by Messiaen) and texts to the choral works in English and French.
Although we still await re releases of the early Loriod piano material and the Erato Fetes des Belles Eaux recording, the Messiaen Edition is a truly welcome re issue and superb value for money for which Warner Classics must be applauded.
©Malcolm Ball 2005
Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus Yvonne Loriod 1975 (Erato), Pierre-Laurent Aimard 1999 (Teldec) Steven Osborne 2001 (Hyperion)
After trawling through various catalogues worldwide it appears that Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus is Messiaen's most recorded piano work since Yvonne Loriod's first recordings on Pathé 78s and subsequent LPs in1956, my Vega boxed set of which, after wife and child, would probably be the first thing I would grab from a burning house!
With so many recordings past and present its been hard to single out individual
offerings as most pianists have brought differing characteristics to this work
over the years. Indeed its also been interesting to hear how Loriod's own interpretations
have changed through time.
My first exposure to Vingt Regards was not Loriod but the Hungarian born Thomas Rajna who came to the Wigmore Hall, London to perform the cycle in its entirety I think as part of a tour to promote his newly released recording of the work on 3 LPs for the Saga Record label. Since then there have been offerings from the likes of John Ogden, Malcolm Troup, Michel Béroff, Hakon Austbo, Volker Banfield, Joanna MacGregor, Louise Bessette, Roger Muraro, Angela Hewitt and the great Peter Hill whose complete Messiaen Piano Music is to appear on Regis Records (its about time!).
The three contenders I have chosen represent real landmarks in the recording
of Vingt Regards. I was always of the somewhat conceited opinion that
a Loriod performance was the definitive - this was until I heard Aimard and
Osborne when I realized that as history develops so a new higher level of interpretation
develops. It is a fact of life that standards rise and boundaries are broken
down, we see this in education constantly but I have to admit that it came as
quite a shock to hear these performances and not be disappointed from
the word go.
After hearing the first two bars of Regard du Pere played by Steven Osborne I thought at last someone (with the exception of Peter Hill) has captured what I think is the true tempo and spirit of this movement. So often it is far too fast as was the case of the then youthful Béroff, or its too muddy and unclear. This is reflected in the timings of this movement: Loriod 5.21, Aimard 6.10 but Osborne a winner at 8.10. I'm not saying that this cosmically slow pace always works, indeed in the last movement where Osborne takes a massive 15.34 to reveal the Church of Love against Aimards 11.59 can seem a bit ponderous - here Loriod gets it just right (as always).
Pierre-Laurent Aimard has made a feature of Regard de l'Esprit de joie as an encore in his recitals and his dazzling technical fireworks always brings the house down but generally I found some subtleties in his interpretation less convincing overall. Take for example the slow right hand chords in the 'Rappell de "la Vierge et l'enfant" section of Premiére communion de la Vierge - Aimard comes across as too bell like, almost 'clanky' whereas Loriod and especially Osborne has these chords merely glistening in the heavens.
The fiendishly difficult Par Lui tout á été fait has Steven Osborne playing like a man possessed shaving off a good minute and half from Aimard - real edge of the seat stuff!
All three seem to reach a happy medium in Regard de l'Esprit de joie with performances around eight and half minutes although Aimard's 'ritual oriental dance and hunt' are swifter.
Osborne's bird passages are particularly stunning with crystal clear articulation,
speed and colour (I would dearly look forward to a Catalogue d'Oiseaux
by this extraordinary pianist) akin to Messiaen's own interpretation of bird
passages in his early recordings of Ile de feu 1 and Harawi.
One always comes back to the sheer stylish and deep understanding of Yvonne Loriod's playing - she really 'digs in' to all the accents and never misses an articulation so important in Messiaen's piano music where there is so much happening melodically not just between hands but between fingers (for example:' Les bras tendus vers l'amour' in Le baiser de l'enfant Jesus). This Erato set is increasingly hard to find but should still be available. Aimard's and Osborne's are readily available with Osborne's presented in a stylish jewel case and invaluable booklet with notes by Nigel Simeone quoting from Messiaen's own diary entries at the time of composing Vingt Regards.
Both the Teldec and the Hyperion recording suffer from the digital characteristic of a slight lack of piano 'depth' in the bass register. This is clearly heard in such movements as La parole toute-puissante and Noël where Messiaen asks for a reverberating tam-tam sound on the lowest three notes of the keyboard. Here they sound a little 'wooden' but the Loriod - Erato scores hands down as the ADD recording captures that growling depth impeccably.
If you only have one version of Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus
it has to be Yvonne Loriod. If you can have two versions or you can't get hold
of the Erato then the Steven Osborne - Hyperion is a must. He has certainly
left his mark on this piece with this highly recommened presentation.
Olivier Messiaen Live: Improvisations inédites La Praye Disques
I stumbled on La Praye, a tiny web site and equally tiny independent label specializing in music for the organ, purely by chance. Based in Rully, France and Montreal, Quebec their small but highly significant catalogue revealed this 2 CD set of Messiaen improvising at the organ of La Trinité.
That these recordings came about at all is something of a small two pronged miracle, and is thanks to the ingenuity of Olivier Glandaz the organ builder who since 1977 has been responsible for the maintenance of the organ at La Trinité. It was his idea to make recordings of Messiaen's improvisations during some of the religious ceremonies and Sunday Masses at the church. The other prong of this small miracle is down to Maxime Patel the producer of the CD. Apparently Maxime Patel was approached by Jeanne Loriod in 2001 with an idea to mark the 10th anniversary of Messiaen's death with a release of a CD including Fête des Belles Eaux. Sadly this project was never realized due to the sudden death of Jeanne Loriod the same year. So Patel decided to honour the occasion with the release of these improvisations.
Olivier Glandaz recorded these improvisations between
1984 and 1987 using 'non professional' equipment and thanks to the remastering
skills of Laurent Olivier we are presented with nearly two and a half hours
of the maître at work. Armed only with his little well used book of Gregorian
chant melodies, Messiaen weaves his magic over an often spellbound congregation
who respond with spontaneous applause giving thanks for bringing into focus
musically the lesson that had been read.
There are 29 improvisations in all displaying all aspects of Messiaen's organ technique and fondness for the characteristic combination registers of the Trinité organ in styles ranging from the sublime Priére du Christ montant vers son Pére (L'Ascension) and Priére avant la communion (Livre du Saint Sacrement) to fiery toccata moments a la Dieu Parmi Nous.
Organ music has always been notorious to record because of the inherent nature of location. The rumble of traffic, the slamming of the odd door has to be accepted on the best recordings and yes there is background noise and yes there is the odd clunking of furniture down below in the church but this never dims the experience of hearing this music in the spirit it was performed and for those of us who were never lucky enough to be part of the congregation at La Trinité these recordings are surely the next best thing. There is a DVD available (see 'audio/visual resources' page) which features Messiaen improvising, again an invaluable document but one which lacks the spontaneity induced by a 'live' audience or congregation and that's what makes these CDs so important both to the Messiaen scholar and the interested listener.
American Record Guide
Read more Paul Kim reviews of Messiaen's piano music at musicweb-international.com/
|Unlike several years ago, there are now many recordings of Messiaen's vast piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus and Jacqueline Chew's account must rate among the top contenders. This is a fine balanced and well focused recording (perhaps a little light in the bass register which is often inherent with digital recordings) with great clarity and colour. Tempos are generally good throughout and capture Messiaen's complex time scales well. Perhaps Jacqueline Chew's absolute fortissimos dont have quite the shere brute force of Osborne or Aimard but they are nonetheless gripping and powerful. It would have been nice to read some more analytical sleeve notes rather than just Messiaen's score notes. Overall a well presented and engaging package.|