Classical CD Reviews

MESSIAEN: Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum; Le tombeau resplendissant; Hymne – Orch. National de Lyon/ Jun Märkl – Naxos

Märkl’s Et expecto is a bit understated, but the other, relatively obscure works on the program make this an album worth sampling.

Published on March 26, 2013

MESSIAEN: Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum; Le tombeau resplendissant; Hymne – Orch. National de Lyon/ Jun Märkl – Naxos 8.572748, 61:32 ***1/2:

German conductor Jun Märkl’s cycle of Debussy orchestral music on Naxos with the Orchestre National de Lyon received mixed but mostly positive reviews, especially when filling in the gaps in Debussy’s recorded output. I was positively impressed with the releases in the series that I sampled, especially with the quality of playing from the orchestra, which Jun Märkl lead for six years starting in 2005. As heard in the recent recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Jun Märkl passed on a well-disciplined orchestra to its new director, Leonard Slatkin. The brass—as far as I’m concerned not always a strong suit among French orchestras—is especially weighty and rounded in the Berlioz and in the current Naxos recording of music by Messiaen, some of the music (Et expecto) set down as early as 2008.

Messiaen is a challenge for any orchestra and conductor, which may explain why some of the composer’s large-scale masterworks have been tackled by only a few brave souls on disc; this includes Éclairs sur lau-delà and Aux canyons aux étoiles. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum of 1964 has fared a little better on disc. Among conductors who have recorded it is Serge Baudo, who gave the premiere in the grand Gothic setting of La Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Scored for thirty-four brass and wind instruments plus three percussionists, the work was clearly conceived by Messiaen with large spaces in mind, including the great outdoors, which the scoring, lacking strings, implies. [So it’s unfortunate this is not in hi-res surround…Ed.]  It was commissioned by French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux to honor the dead of two world wars. The result is not a lamenting or elegiac work but instead an extended apotheosis of the dead with specific reference to the Christian Resurrection, the very title taken from the conclusion of the Nicene Creed.

The work starts with the despair and hope implicit in Psalm 130 (“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee”); the next movement (“Christ, risen from the dead, no longer dies”) celebrates Christ’s victory over death through the Resurrection. The third and fourth movements (“The time shall come when the dead hear the voice of the Son of God” and “They shall rise again in glory, with a new name”) foretell the resurrection of the dead, while the final movement, “And I heard the sound of a great crowd” (Revelations 19:6), is a vision of the praise and rejoicing of the resurrected in heaven.

David McCleery’s fine notes to this recording explain some of the musical symbolism that Messiaen employs in the work: the second movement “is a highly symbolic description of Christ’s Resurrection: the theme on cowbells incorporates the Indian rhytms simhavikrama (meaning ‘the power of the lion’) and the vijaya (‘victory’)—this is a reference Christ’s depiction in Revelation as the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ who gained victory over death. This combined rhythm has fifteen matras or beats and is dedicated to the Indian god Shiva, the vanquisher of death and sometimes known as the fivefold god; the five of Shiva multiplied by the three of the Holy Trinity equal the fifteen beats of the simhavikrama.”

The next movement incorporates the birdsong that came to be an increasingly important musical element for Messiaen, symbolizing the harmony of the natural order with God. But here the birdsong is of the uirapuru “a bird of the Amazonian jungle, which according to legend is only heard immediately before death.” (Villa Lobos wrote a well-known ballet based on this little bird and its haunting call.) Fortunately, a listener needs to know little or nothing about this complex musical symbolism to enjoy and draw comfort from Messiaen’s mostly ecstatic work.

Of recorded performances, the two by Boulez, and especially the second with the Cleveland Orchestra on DGG, are probably the most respected. Boulez had a somewhat unexpected rapport with this orchestra, renowned for its interpretations of Mozart and Romantic composers from Mendelssohn to Brahms and Dvořák. Still, I find Märkl and the Lyon orchestra are mostly up to the challenge of Messiaen’s demanding music. Märkl shapes the music compellingly, from the dark opening chords to the celebratory close. Yet hearing the Boulez recording is to hear another order of music-making entirely, the hope, the fear, the ecstasy of the End Days captured with just that much more intensity.

Interestingly, Boulez seems more attuned to the almost late-Romantic drama of the work than Märkl, whose performance seems a bit clinical by comparison. This is strange since Märkl includes two earlier Messiaen pieces that sound almost like tone poems in the Straussian tradition—though without the ripe Straussian orchestration and with the dissonant harmonic language that Messiaen would greatly refine over the course of his career. Le tombeau resplendissant, which Messiaen (aged all of twenty-four when he composed it) confessed was a sort of tombeau or elegy for his departed youth, has an angry despairing cast to it, except when it subsides into an inward, reflective haze of sound. Hymne, written the following year (1932), covers more familiar ground, being an expression of the soul’s union with God, cast as a sonata-allegro in which the stormy development section represents the soul’s battle with sin.

These early works provide inklings of the style and cosmology of the mature Messiaen but also provide a fascinating snapshot of the young composer forging that style out of an amalgam of modernist and late-Romantic musical gesture. For that insight, more than for the decent but understated performance of Et expecto (captured in very good stereo sound, by the way), this recording deserves consideration by fans of Messiaen and of twentieth-century orchestral music in general.

—Lee Passarella

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