MESSIAEN: Des Canyons Aux Ètoiles – London Philharmonic Orch./Christoph Eschenbach – London Philharmonic

OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Des Canyons Aux Ètoiles – London Philharmonic Orch./Christoph Eschenbach – London Philharmonic LPO-0083 [Distr. by Naxos], (3/10/15), 100:06 (2 CDs) ****:

Messiaen’s gigantic, epic ode to nature and to creation, Des Canyons aux Ètoiles (From the Canyons of the Stars) has long been one of my favorite Messiaen works; already one of my favorite composers. This nearly two-hour-long work for large orchestra with extended percussion section was inspired by a 1970 trip to the American west with his wife, ondès martenot player, Yvonne Loriod. The other motive for the trip was specifically to gain ideas for a newly commissioned work to be played at Lincoln Center in recognition of the bicentenary of the United States.

Messiaen found his specific point of inspiration at Bryce Canyon, Utah – having visited this amazing locale several times myself it is, indeed, inspiring. This mammoth and very colorful work is divided into three parts. The first pays homage to the desert and its bird-life; something that permeates much of Messiaen’s output. The second part is specifically in response to the awe of Bryce Canyon and the vast, clear night skies. The third is, perhaps, the most esoteric and religious in its intent and source of inspiration. Messiaen created music that seemingly comes ‘from’ the stars – the red giant, Aldebaran, in particular, and, then; to the “Celestial City” as represented by Zion Park.

Messaien, the person, was a fascinating and complex figure who was a lifelong devout Catholic, avid bird-watcher and amateur ornithologist, someone fascinated with the celestial and with astronomy and – though not documented – he may have heard much about (and been fascinated by) the American Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints while traversing Utah. In many ways, From the Canyons of the Stars is not only a “perfect” depiction of the awe and inspiration of the American southwest but is idiomatic ‘Messiaen.’

The textures are at times thick, dense and very “busy.”  The orchestrations are of his trademark exotic blend of brass, tinkling percussion and even the inclusion of two devices of his own vision: an éliophone (specialized wind machine) and a géophone (essentially a sophisticated sand tumbler) There are references in the score to his Oiseaux Exotiques (practically a ‘bird call’ tone poem) and also a movement for solo horn, “Interstellar Call” intended to be in homage of one of Messiaen’s students who died all too young at the age of thirty-six.

I like the performance here a great deal with the amazing London Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach, always a solid interpreter of modern music. The sound here on the LPO’s own label is quite good as well. This happens to be a live recording recorded at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in November 2013 as part of ‘The Rest Is Noise’ festival, inspired by Alex Ross’s book “The Rest Is Noise.”

I happen to like the music of Olivier Messiaen a lot but it does require patience. His works are characteristically long and contain many ‘false climaxes’ where we think the score is over but is far from it; in part because his music is also that of extremes in dynamic, in tone, in texture. I find Canyons (like “Exotic Birds” and Turangalila) to contain moments of great beauty and this remains one of my favorite of his works. I still do like the much older Sony recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the London Sinfonietta too but I am hard pressed to say which I prefer. [There is evidently also a hi-res surround version of this LPO SACD – which this work seems designed for…Ed.]

This is a brilliant new recording and I believe enthusiasts of Messiaen ought to have this one as well. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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