Monday, May 15, 2017

Warner Classics Takes a Unique Approach to its Messiaen Collection

Almost exactly a month ago, Warner Classics released a collection of recordings of the music of Olivier Messiaen. The occasion appears to be the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death on April 27, 1992, although, for a reason that totally eludes me, the page for this album describes the collection as a “20th Anniversary edition.” Indeed, by some coincidence that probably would have amused Messiaen, the album consists of 25 CDs on this 25th anniversary occasion!

This release is not a “complete works” edition. Rather, it has taken a somewhat unique approach to compiling and arranging its content. The collection is divided into two distinctly separate parts. The first eighteen CDs constitute the first part, which may be called the “authorized” recordings that Messiaen himself supervised. By far the largest number of these recordings feature Messiaen’s wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod; and, as might be expected, all organ performances are by Messiaen himself. He also joins his wife in the earliest (1949) recording in the collection, a duo performance of the “Visions de l’Amen” for two pianos. The other “family connection” is with Jeanne Loriod, Yvonne’s sister, who appears in those performances that require an ondes Martenot. The remaining CDs are identified as “landmark” interpretations involving significant performers on labels that are now handled by Warner Classics.

Each of these two parts is then subdivided into what may be called “genre categories.” These are the categories that will divide how this collection will be discussed in a series of articles. The first such category, to be addressed below, is piano music (including duo performances). The categories that will follow will be organ works, chamber music, orchestral music (including concertante compositions), and vocal music.

To be fair, many are likely to feel that this album will serve up more Messiaen than they would ever want to encounter. So much of Messiaen’s music is tightly coupled to his highly personal worldview, which few are likely to share. That worldview, in turn, was shaped by his intense professions of the Catholic faith and his passionate regard for the natural world as the ultimate manifestation of a Divine presence. In that latter category much of his attention was devoted to birds. One might almost say that, for Messiaen, birds embodied the epitome of musical talent to which Messiaen knew he could only hope to aspire.

Both of those influences play a significant role in his solo and duo piano music. Where the former is concerned, the “Visions de l’Amen” may be the best introduction to Messiaen’s religious outlook. The word “amen” can be found in Hebrew in the Old Testament; but its origin is probably Aramaic. The basic translation is “so be it;” and it concludes every Jewish prayer as a statement of affirmation. In the “Visions de l’Amen” Messiaen expands that concept of affirmation into several far more general domains, beginning with Creation itself and concluding the the consummation of the relationship between Man and God. The entire cycle begins with a “creation” theme, which then pervades much of what will then follow, usually embedded in a diverse series of embellishments:

transcribed by Yuval Filmus for Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

There is a tendency to dwell, usually critically, on Messiaen composing with a limited lexicon; but this entails giving priority to a characteristic that is not consistent with the composer’s view of faith. In October of 2015, I had the good fortune to experience a recital performance of the “Visions de l’Amen” given by Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng. I do not think of either of those performers from a religious point of view; but I would say that, whatever their conviction of faith may have been, they served up about as meaningful an embodiment of affirmation as anyone could hope to experience.

Part of what is at stake for the listener is the thickness of Messiaen’s rhetoric. He could build up massive chords (which, to the disappointment of many atonalists, consisted primarily, if not entirely, of thirds); and those chords would often penetrate a “background” of activity that was “nebulous” with regard to pitch classes and/or rhythm. This is not an auditory experience that lends itself to capture, even with the best recording equipment available today; so one can imagine that the 1949 recording labored under considerable disadvantage. Nevertheless, one can still apprehend the significance of phrasing that always seems to be foremost in this execution by Loriod and Messiaen.

One can then compare that recording with the more recent (1989) effort in the second part. There the performers are Martha Argerich and Alexander Rabinovitch, pianists who have made other impressive duo recordings. The acoustic response is far richer; but it is hard to avoid feeling a sense of “secular aridity” in the performance itself. One can admire the discipline with which the details of the score have been honored; but the significance of the title of the composition or the “enumeration of affirmations” that defines the individual movements never seems to register. A similar difficulty is encountered in the solo piano recordings by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, even if there are many who feel inclined to treat Aimard as a “prevailing authority” on performing Messiaen.

However, the real challenge with listening to the solo piano music, even when Loriod is playing it, involves Messiaen’s inclinations for extended duration. On the religious side this is most evident in the “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus” (twenty glances upon the infant Jesus). This, again, was music that I was fortunate enough to experience at a recital at which all twenty movements were played without intermission over the course of about two hours. Here, again, the entire composition is pervaded by a relatively limited vocabulary, which includes two chord progressions, one for God and one for a rainbow, and one sinuous melodic line that represents both the Star of Bethlehem and Jesus writhing on the Cross.

Nevertheless, an even longer undertaking emerged from Messiaen’s occupation with avian life. His Catalogue d’oiseaux (bird catalog) consists of seven books and accounts for thirteen different species. The whole thing amounts to about two and three-quarters hours of music. In this case, however, it is unclear whether or not Messiaen really expected the whole thing to be performed in a single recital (even with one or more intermission breaks).

On the other hand one has to marvel at how Messiaen could restrict himself to a single species for a prolonged period of time. The most extreme case is “Le rousserolle effarvatte” (the reed warbler), which is the only piece in the fourth book and takes about half an hour to perform. Over that extended period of time, Messiaen takes in not only the variants on the song patterns of this one bird but also the physical setting of the habitat. To be fair, however, it is one thing to appreciate a sensible explanation of how Messiaen made these pieces and quite another to then refine one’s listening skills to validate that explanation.

Personal experience has taught me that listening to Messiaen is a matter of individual “acclimatization.” In plainer language, one just has to get used to it; and the best way to do this is through revisiting recordings of his music. Where the piano is concerned, Loriod remains the best choice for the broadest scope of the Messiaen repertoire. In other words those who are really interested in Messiaen could not draw upon a better resource than the Loriod recordings in this collection to become a seriously appreciative listener.

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