Olivier Messiaen knew little about the United States when he was approached by Alice Tully in 1971 to compose a work on commission in celebration of the American bicentennial. However, as a result of seeing photographs of Bryce Canyon in Wonders of the World, he planned a visit to southern Utah in the spring of 1973. Traveling with his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, he visited not only Bryce but also Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks. These were the inspirations for the music he wrote to fulfill Tully’s commission, a piece about 100 minutes long in twelve movements entitled “Des canyons aux étoiles…” (from the canyons to the stars).
This was one of Messiaen’s grander designs. The work requires four soloists on piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel, respectively. However, each of the remaining 40 musicians in the ensemble has his/her own individual part. These consist of six violins, three violas, three cellos, one bass with an extension for a low C string, piccolo, two flutes, alto flute, two oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two horns, D trumpet, two C trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, and five percussionists managing a very large assortment of instruments.
The panoramic vistas of the American Southwest may have inspired Messiaen, but his sources were global. As usual, the score is populated with a plethora of bird calls; but, for this composition, even the continental United States was not remote enough for Messiaen. Four of them, all of which appear in the penultimate movement, come from Hawaii. Furthermore, the second-longest movement is the piece is a solo piano evocation of a mockingbird. (The longest movement was Messiaen’s representation in sound of the red-orange rocks of Bryce Canyon.)
Almost exactly a year ago, conductor Alan Gilbert visited the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. He prepared a performance of “Des canyons aux étoiles…” with the participating musicians, which was subsequently recorded in Santa Fe. That recording was released by Entertainment One at the beginning of this month. The soloists are Inon Barnatan on piano, Philip Myers on horn, Daniel Druckman on xylorimba, and Jeffrey Milarsky on glockenspiel. Those used to Messiaen’s predilections for working with large masses of sound, often in very short gestures and frequently separated by sustained intervals of silence, should have no trouble getting into the spirit of this music, even if there is far too much detail to be captured by even the most advanced recording and reproduction technology.
Nevertheless, Messiaen packed so much into this particular score that it would be unfair to attend a concert performance without some basic preparation. In that respect this recording is an excellent resource through which the eager listener can not only grasp the overall program of the composition but also begin to work up some familiarity with the sorts of tropes the composer would engage whether reproducing bird song or translating vast visual panoramas into auditory terms. Gilbert had the good fortune to work with a highly-skilled team in preparing to present this music at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; and this recording is as good a document of the results of his efforts as one is likely to encounter.