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Olivier MESSIAEN, “20th Anniversary Edition” – A Comprehensive Collection of the Works of Olivier Messiaen – Warner  Classics, 25 CDs

Olivier MESSIAEN, “20th Anniversary Edition” – A Comprehensive Collection of the Works of Olivier Messiaen – Warner  Classics, 25 CDs [Performance credits below] (4/15/17) ****:

Warner Classics has released an exceptional and comprehensive assemblage of Olivier Messiaen’s significant musical corpus.

To honor this special release from Warner Classics, and the impact Messiaen has had on music in the 20th Century, Audiophile Audition is presenting an extended review (by a few genre), beginning with some personal reflections.

Olivier Messaien – A Few Observations

I first encountered the music of Olivier Messaien (1908-1992) with his 1933 The Ascension in a recording by Leopold Stokowski. The eclectic combination of sincerity, simplicity, religious devotion, ecstasy, and rhythmic complexity had a shocking effect, if only for the sheer vitality of the numinous visions. Messaien had been twenty-five-years-old at the time he created the piece; his having lived in the French musical world dominated by Debussy and Ravel – and to a degree, Stravinsky – it struck me how much Messiaen had gleaned from their individual sonorities while breaking free to impose his own sound-world. A little investigation on my part revealed the composer’s strong Catholic faith, his training by Dukas, his mastery of the organ and its repertory both liturgical and purely instrumental. A “quick” survey of other pieces merely reinforced my impression of a devout man, sincerely committed to mystery, ecstasy, and the ultimate serenity of one who synthesized his religious fervor – which included his embracing diverse religions and their musical expression – with the natural world, specifically birds and their songs into a kind of cosmic parataxis: a Christian pantheism.

In 1949 Theodor Adorno had written, in response to the Holocaust and the world’s declining spirit generally: “the new music has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world.” Mahler had previously labeled the 20th Century, “the century of death.” It seems to me Olivier Messaien had divined his personal mission as redemptive, to find in his faith, in his “regards for the infant Jesus,” the blissful revelation of salvation and grace within the individual human soul. That revelation, as Virgil Thomson pointed out, did not necessarily involve pleasant tones: Messaien’s music could be “convulsive, ecstatic, unreal, dark, and terrifying.” He took Debussy’s whole tones and diminished scale patterns and spliced plainchant, Hindu melodies, ragas, gamelan sonorities, and bright, “Hollywood” sounds into a kaleidoscopic amalgam whose blazing vitality and vibrancy became the composer’s trademark. The Quartet for the End of Time (1941), the composer’s own “holocaust” experience, led us into uncharted emotional waters, often weird and unsettling, yet somehow comforting, as when we often quip about the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Turangalila-Symphony (1948), created on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, extends the sense of revelation and immanent godhood in us all as universal and communal: its own etymology suggests the “fearful symmetry” of time’s progression and the cyclical inter-play of life and death, as conceived by the Greek philosopher Empedocles.  For pianist and future wife Yvonne Loriod Messaien wrote extensively for the keyboard, and his No. 6 from Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus invokes a colossal fugue on the motive “By Him Everything Was Made.”  To embrace even the idea of contradiction, the possible union of opposites, seems as “Eastern” a thought as it resonates with Spinoza and Nietzsche. While Messaien dallies with aspects of serialism and atonality while avoiding having become a mere epigone, he incorporates the Ondes Martenot, that curious, electronic musical apparatus (for Yvonne Loriod) that invokes other-worldly, science-fiction modalities.  The birdcalls in Messaien’s music find their own apotheosis in his opera, St. Francis of Assisi, based on the life of a formerly profane man who transcended his past, and embraced God’s simple creatures as an extension of his own capacity for charity.

So: there are in Messaien’s music elements both antique and contemporary, sacred and profane, local and global, immediate and transcendent. Either he has blurred traditional divisions of musical matter or fused them, regardless of school or tradition. He evokes a tonal experience at once chaste and sensual, primitive and learned. He opposes Sartre’s Being and Nothingness with Being-in-Everything. His Catalogue d’oiseux aspires to Kepler’s laws that define the harmony of the spheres. His notion that life involves a perpetual song embraces virtually every “native” instinct and culture. All of Messaien’s music impels “ascension,” and so my own initiation into his music proves correct:  climb to the spirit, ascend to Parnassus, seek grace, forgive Mankind.

—Gary Lemco

Choral Works

Poemes pour Mi is the first of Messiaen’s three great songs cycles for soprano and piano, along with Harawi and Songs of Earth and Sky, though this first was intended for orchestra, and often given in the piano version. Those with a superfluous or casual connection to the composer’s music are not likely to be familiar with his songs. In fact, most of his fans would regard his songs as secondary to his great orchestral works, of which there are not a few. But this is to ignore an important aspect of his art, even though the preponderance of importance, it must be admitted, lies in other genres. Poems pour Mi is dedicated to his first wife, and is an intimate and curiously subdued cycle in two books, divided as follows:

First book
Action of Thanksgiving; Landscape; The House; Horror

Second book
The wife; Your voice; The two warriors; The necklace; Prayer answered

This piece is one of the more accessible works of the composer, and this recording, with the on-key performance of Maria Oran and the sterling pianism of Yvonne Loriod, remains a fine one, even though the obvious preference is for the orchestral version, of which Anne Schwanewilms and Jun Markl with the Lyon National Orchestra on Naxos are a superb—and cheap—alternative.

Chants de terre et de ciel, written only a year later (1938), is, like the Mi songs (a nickname for his wife), intensely personal, yet this time far more monumental in scope and aurally exceptional. This is the Messiaen of his mature piano works, and indeed the instrument is an indispensable part of the collaboration. The same forces are at work here in fully acceptable performances. The 50-minute large cycle Harawi, with texts by the composer, takes its title from the love-song of Andean music, paralleling the idea of the Tristanesque “love death”, something the composer was quite enthralled with since his first wife was beginning to suffer mental illness at the beginning of its composition. The twelve movements are titled:

  1. La ville qui dormait, toi (The City That Slept, You)
  2. Bonjour toi, colombe verte (Hello There, You Green Dove)
  3. Montagnes (Mountains)
  4. Doundou tchil
  5. L’amour de Piroutcha (Piroutcha’s Love)
  6. Répétition planétaire (Planetary Repeti
  7. Adieu (Farewell)
  8. Syllabes (Syllables)
  9. L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil (Staircase Retold, Gestures of the Sun)
  10. Amour oiseau d’étoile (Love Star-bird)
  11. Katchikatchi les étoiles (Katchikatchi the Stars)
  12. Dans le noir (In the Dark)

The piece elevates the very idea of symbolic texts to that of representational vocal timbres, freed from all but the most tentative of connections to grammar and semantics, showing how far the eleven years had taken him from Songs of Earth and Sky. The work can be difficult, and presupposes a familiarity with the sounds and rhythms of the Turangalîla Symphony, written later the same year, in order to acclimate to the sound world. Yet it is an important composition in its own right, difficult though the experience can be for the uninitiated. The performance is good, though Oran’s voice does tend toward the harsh in some instances—it is a taxing set of songs. One caveat on this presentation—the cycle is divided over two discs, probably expedient for space but a bit of a pain for the listener.

On the same disc as the continuation of Harawi, is one of the true masterpieces of the modern choral art, the Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence for women’s voices, piano solo, ondes Martenot, and orchestra (without winds), again to a libretto by the composer. This gorgeous and highly spiritual work reflects on three aspects of the divine presence of God, something deeply on the composer’s mind when written amid WWII. This is an excellent performance, though I would not want to be without the Ozawa/ Boston reading (from the Boston Symphony’s historical box set) or Marcus Creed and his Danish ensemble on an OUR Super Audio recording.

The last disc has Cinq Rechants (Five Refrains), a work designed as the third part of the “Tristan” trilogy from 1948, along with the Turangalîla Symphony and Harawi. The text is a compendium of the French translation of Tristan, along with some Sanskrit realizations, featuring European rhythms (peruvian harawi, medieval troubadour’s songs, indian deçi-tâlas) and the composer’s almost patented modal technique of non-retrogradable composition. The short mixed-choir O sacrum convivium is plugged in here, along with the Trois melodies for soprano and piano, a short and very early song cycle.

Finishing the disc is the incredible two-piano work Visions de l’Amen, a seven-part suite dwelling on the meaning the “Amen” word found in Genesis and ending in Revelation, and reflecting the living beings who say “Amen” in gratitude for their existence. It is a tremendous effort of enormous emotional import, and I have two favorite recordings, the Cedille recording with Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal, and this issue with the legendary Martha Argerich and partner Alexander Rabinovitch, surely a classic of the gramophone, stunning in its articulate and persuasive power.

—Steven Ritter

Chamber Music

Olivier Messiaen died in 1992 at the age of 83 and was one of the most important and recognizable  composers of the last half of the twentieth century.   His was a unique voice, quite unlike that of the other French composers of that time—Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, Dutilleux.  This 25-CD edition comprises Olivier Messiaen’s principal works (piano, organ, chamber, concertante, orchestral, voice & piano, choral).

The collection is divided into two parts: A) Recordings made under Olivier Messiaen’s supervision, and which feature the composer as pianist or organist, his famous pianist wife Yvonne Loriod and/or his sister in law Jeanne Loriod, a specialist in the electronic Ondes Martenot – and also Mstislav Rostropovich and Pierre Boulez; and B) Landmark recordings in which Olivier Messiaen did not himself participate but which involve such outstanding artists as Marie-Claire Alain, Martha Argerich, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who won the Olivier Messiaen Prize in 1973) and Sir Simon Rattle, among others. Fête des belles eaux (CD13) and 8 Préludes (CD21 Pierre-Laurent Aimard) are released on CD for the first time ever.

It is clear when we listen to all these works—and nearly anything by Messiaen—that his style was a unique style, with a self-devised harmonic system and the use of rhythmic cells and melodies that are dependent on the harmonic flow and source material. His melodies, while often lovely, sometimes cover but a narrow range and veer close to the whole tone aesthetic of Debussy and the Impressionists.

Messiaen was a man whose philosophies and beliefs revolved closely around his love of nature, especially that of birds—he was by many accounts a very skilled bird-watcher and took to notating their calls for source material. He was also, perhaps primarily, a devout French Catholic who grew up at a time when one’s strong faith helped get through two world wars that ravaged parts of his country. In many cases his music bears titles and occupies sound worlds that are overtly religious or give great homage to nature.

This collection contains all his best known works, as well as a number of interesting yet lesser known pieces.

In the chamber music category, a few things caught my attention. First, that extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time is not just one of Messiaen’s greatest works; it is one of the finest examples of twentieth century chamber music. Written while the composer was a prisoner of war for the musicians on hand at the camp—a violinist, cellist, clarinetist and pianist, all classically trained—and captures both the bleak mood as well as a sense of hope that rises from the detained. The rendition included here is, however, is just a bit faster in places than I am used to hearing.

The Fetes Des belles eaux (celebration of beautiful waters) is an absolute oddity, written for six ondes martenots (a French invention that was/is quite literally a cross between an organ and what we would consider a synthesizer; using some of the same eerie glissando ridden technology of a theremin (There is a touch bar above the keys that performs the rising and falling pitches.) It is, indeed, a very strange but beautiful in places. Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, and her sister were specialists in this strange instrument that Messiaen wrote for quite a bit.

There are also some small gems like the fairly obscure Variations for violin and piano and the Merle Noir (Blackbird) for flute and piano. I was also pleased to discover the dark but transcendental La Mort du Nombre (‘Many’/’Countless’ Deaths) for soprano, tenor, violin and piano on a text of the composer’s own writing.

It is also very apparent that Messiaen was a man whose philosophies and beliefs revolved very closely around his love of nature; especially that of birds – he was by many accounts a very skilled bird-watcher and took to notating their calls for source material. He was also, perhaps primarily, a very devout French Catholic who grew up at a time when one’s strong faith helped you to get through two world wars that ravaged parts of his country. In many, many cases his music bears titles and occupies sound worlds that are overtly religious or give great homage to nature.

This very comprehensive collection is not everything he wrote but it contains absolutely all his best-known works (except for the nearly five hour long opera St. Francis of Assisi) as well as a number of interesting or important lesser known pieces.

In the chamber music category, a few things caught my attention. First, the absolute masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time is not just one of Messiaen’s greatest works; it is one of the finest examples of twentieth century chamber music. Written while the composer was a prisoner of war; this quartet was written for the musicians on hand at the camp – a violinist, cellist, clarinetist and pianist; all classically trained – and captures both the bleak mood as well as a sense of hope that rises from the detained. The rendition included here is, however, is just a bit faster in places than I am used to hearing.

The Fetes Des belles eaux (celebration of beautiful waters) is an absolute oddity, written for six ondes martenots—a French invention that was literally a cross between an organ and what we would consider a synthesizer, enabling the glissando effects. Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, and her sister were specialists in this instrument, which is reflected in Messiaen’s affection for it.

There are also some small gems like the fairly obscure Variations for violin and piano and the Merle Noir (Blackbird) for flute and piano. I was also pleased to discover the dark but transcendental La Mort du Nombre (‘Many’/’Countless’ Deaths) for soprano, tenor, violin and piano on a text of the composer’s own writing.

The 7 Haiku (Japanese Sketches) shows us that the composer was often fascinated with eastern mysticism. It is overtly modal and “Japanese” but definably Messiaen. What really struck me as odd was how unusual the work “Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament” is. Revised several times and dating back to the midst of the second World War, it barely sounds like the Messiaen of the Turangalila or L’éclairs sur l’au-delá (Lightning over the beyond).

—Daniel Coombs

 

Organ Works

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) was the most influential composer for the organ in the 20th century. Shaped by French tradition as well as the innovations of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartók, Messiaen developed a unique style that would become his signature. His works are full of mysticism, and some of his music arose from his attention to mathematical theory.

The 5 discs in the set dedicated to Messiaen’s complete organ compositions feature Messiaen performing on all of these recordings. They were recorded in Paris at the La Trinité, where Messiaen conceived these pieces would be played.

Messaien was at his most experimental in Livre d’orgue and Messe de la Pentecôte‚ both of which are on disc 10 in the collection. Messaien writes in a kind of floating contrapuntal style that we often see in compositions for piano but not something we hear often written for organ. For me, these works are tremendously interesting and evocative of Messaien’s mind at work. He heads in fresh directions, yet the music is satisfying and cogent.

For audiophiles (and we are audiophiles, are we not?),  there is Apparition de l’église éternelle  which is perhaps one of the most monumental organ pieces ever written. It’s a ten minute crescendo of tremendous power and emotion.

The recordings here are good, but perhaps limited by the technology of those decades. On all the discs the sound can seem a bit constricted during the loudest, busiest parts of the compositions. I never heard outright distortion, but the sound did show a loss of definition. Stereo spread is minimal.

Even given my reservations about the sound, which is never terrible, the treat here is listening to Messiaen play his own works. While there is a lot of material to listen to, I was never overwhelmed by the amount of music, but rather I was swept into Messiaen’s world of mysticism and tonality.

There are  other multiple disc sets that contain only the organ works, but I think Messiaen completists will want this massive set of one of the world’s most influential musicians. It doesn’t contain everything Messiaen wrote, but has all his principal works.

—Mel Martin

 

Olivier MESSIAEN— “20th Anniversary Edition”:
Orchestre National de France/Kent Nagano
Ensemble Ars Nova/Orchestre du Domaine Musical/Marius Constant
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez, André Previn
Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle
Maîtrise et Orchestre de Chambre de la RTF/Marcel Couraud
Chœur et orchestre de l’opéra de Paris/Seiji Ozawa
Orchestre philharmonique de l’ORTF/Marius Constant
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle

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