MESSIAEN: Visions de L’Amen; DEBUSSY: En Blanc et Noir – Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal, pianos – Cedille Records CDR 90000 119, 60:51 [Distr. by Naxos] ****½:
Olivier Messiaen composed “Visions de l’Amen,” a work for two pianos, in 1943 after having been released from a prisoner of war camp (where he’d written the justly-famous “Quartet for the End of Time”). For Messiaen, who experienced a type of synesthesia, colors could evoke sounds. He composed “Visions” in the key of A, which he decided was blue, the color of the sky and eternity. Of course that impression would occur to about .000001% of listeners, as would its purported religious content. Much more notable is the style and structure of the pieces, whose roots in Balinese music, plainchant, bird songs, and the pianist Yvonne Loriod (his wife, muse and former student), defy rational analysis.
Like most of his other works, “Visions” are composed in massive sound blocks without much development or continuity. The longest work in the cycle, for example, “Amen du Desir,” begins lyrically, almost tenuously, with a melody that’s first hinted at, eventually stated boldly and repetitively, then suddenly departed from rather than varied or echoed. Minutes later, he returns to this ostinato theme with a ferocity that Ursula Oppens conveys with uninhibited modernist skill. The shortest piece, “Amen du Judgement,” is a series of sound blocks with andante scalar runs punctuated by dark ominous chords. Oppens and Lowenthal do this piece far more justice by bringing out its rough edges and dissonant sonorities than Peter Serkin and Yuji Takahashi did by draping it in romantic tissue eleven years ago (BMG Classics 09026-68907-2). I’m also glad they included the rarely performed Claude Debussy “En Blanc et Noir,” a close cousin to the Messiaen work that has exciting progressions and haunting rhythms, but is nowhere near as unruly and unpredictable.
— Peter Bates