“The Edge of Light” = OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Preludes, Pièce pour piano et quatour à cordes; KAIJA SAARIAHO: Prelude, Ballade, Je sens un deuxième cœur – Gloria Cheng, p./Calder Quartet – Harmonia mundi HMU 907578 (3/12/13), 67: 04 *****:
This is such a wonderful piano disc and I cannot recommend it enough! First of all, Gloria Cheng is one our greatest interpreters of contemporary music with many such recordings to her credit. She plays with amazing sensitivity to the style and a flawless blend of touch, phrasing and technique. Second of all, this is a creative and highly attractive program coupling two of Messiaen’s earliest “mature” masterworks with two works by the brilliant Kaija Saariaho, whose music bears some resemblance to the post-Impressionist French milieu.
While Olivier Messiaen may be known to many for just a few very large colorful orchestral works, such as the Turangalila Symphony or the massive La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. However, he first garnered attention for his large body of extremely colorful piano works. Messiaen wrote an amazing number of such works and was known to have composed fairly slowly and considered his compositions reflections of his own deep love of nature and his own very devout religious beliefs. The Preludes are among his earliest successful large piano volumes and are written in a harmonic and rhythmic idiom that owes something to the forces surrounding his upbringing; ranging from Wagner to Debussy to Schoenberg. There are individual moments within the eight Prèludes that echo each of these influence but which also presage the later Messiaen who developed his own harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary. The individual preludes bear colorful and highly personal references in the score, such as “song of ecstasy in a sad landscape” or “bells of anguish and tears of farewell.” This is not only a singularly beautiful piece but one that makes a perfect introduction to his piano oeuvre; before the ethereal but somewhat complex Visions de l’Amen, for example.
The Pièce for piano and string quartet is a quite interesting but fairly short late work, from 1991. This is practically a “miniature” in Messiaen terms but contains some of the composer’s trademark touches, such as melodic snippets based on bird calls and palindromic rhythms. Alfred Schlee, of Universal Edition in Vienna, was a fervent supporter of Messiaen’s music. When Schlee celebrated his ninetieth birthday with a concert in Vienna on November 18, 1991, twenty esteemed composers wrote pieces for a concert. Messiaen, in the last year of his life, was too frail to attend; but he was one of those composers. The result was the Pièce for piano and string quartet. Angular and sometimes strident chords alternate with the notated twitter of one of Messiaen’s favorite birds, the “Garden Warbler”.
Kaija Saariaho is one Finland’s – and the world’s – most brilliant composers, known for operas and vast, sonically enthralling orchestral works. Her Prelude is one of her first usages of the piano as an almost “keyboard orchestra” with its intense harmony, rumbling under currents and vast technical demands. The Ballade is a commission from Emmanuel Ax who asked several living composers for one of a series of “ballades” much as Chopin wrote. The Saariaho Ballade is written in a series of swirling, dark melodies that seem to fall into the deepest range of the piano before being hurled upwards, temporarily. The range and tone is predominantly dark, low and foreboding.
Je sens un deuxième cœur (I sense a second heart) is an arrangement of five scenes from her opera Adriana Mater, a very emotionally involving story about a young woman dealing with atrocities toward women – at a horrifying key moment; toward herself – in the context of the atrocities of war. This trio for piano, viola and cello captures much of the atmospheric terror of the opera, particularly the impending assault from a drunken soldier as well as the utterly poignant moment of the woman carrying an unplanned child (the “deuxième cœur”). The choice of cello, viola and the prominence of the lower portions of the piano takes the piece into the darker, hyper-realism that the opera portrays. This work even without the context of its derivation is dramatic, tense and foreboding. For those unfamiliar with the music of Saariaho, this provides a good beginning.
Gloria Cheng and the members of the Calder Quartet perform with style and conviction and all music on this disc is spectacular. This is really one of the best recent contemporary piano releases I have heard!