Alex Ross, in his brilliant book about 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, describes Messiaen’s music as “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” This composer is responsible for transitioning French music from neo-classicism and charm (Poulenc) to complex rhythmic patterns and color. This album commemorates the centenary of the composer’s birth and is a good place to become acquainted with one of the great composers of the past century. Messiaen’s music is an amazing synthesis of the intellectual and the sensual, the strong and the weak. His music also probes the mystic realm of God and the sensual pleasures of music, often at the same time. If spiritual contemplation through music is of interest, Messiaen is a composer you must explore.
Messiaen said his Preludes, written when he was 20 and a student, was “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings.” Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape, written when his mother died, combines the joy of memories with the emptiness of loss. Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell is a luminous, powerful ode of remembrance. These are beautiful, contemplative pieces, luminously performed by Aimard.
Messiaen’s love and extensive study of birdsong was expressed in his monumental transcriptions, Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-8) for solo piano. The two selections on this disc, Cetti’s Warbler and The Wood Lark, delightfully depicts the antics, activities and dissonance of birds in the day and at night. The album ends with two of the Quatre Etudes de rythme, Isle of Fire I and II. These studies in rhythm are “savage in energy and rhythmically bold,” an exciting conclusion to a fascinating survey of Messiaen’s piano works. Pierre-Laurent Aimard flawlessly executes the musical and emotional landscape of these works and the recording is powerfully immediate.
— Robert Moon