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26 Aug 2005
MESSIAEN: Orchestral Works
As part of their "Gemini--the EMI Treasures" series, EMI has re-released recordings of some of Olivier Messiaen's greatest hits: the Turangalila-Symphonie (1946 - 48), Quatour pour la fin du temp (1940 - 41), and Le Merle Noir (1951, for flute and piano). This two-disc release features the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, with Tristan Murail playing ondes martenot and Peter Donohoe on solo piano in the 1986 recording of Turangalila-Symphonie. Quatour pour la fin du temps was recorded in 1968 by Erich Gruenberg (violin), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), William Pleeth (cello), and Michel Beroff (piano); Le Merle Noir was taken from a 1971 Abbey Road session with flutist Karlheinz Zoller accompanied by Aloys Kontarsky. These performances in their various manifestations on earlier albums have consistently received rave reviews, and with good reason. The performances are exceptional in their interpretation and the recordings have been beautifully remastered.
Rattle was famously dedicated to the CBSO from 1979 to 1998, during which time as conductor and music director he endeavored to build relationships between himself and the orchestra and between the orchestra and the audience. Furthermore, Rattle was and still is committed to a broad range of repertoire that includes a heavy dose of twentieth-century works and composers. Rattle's devotion to both the CBSO and modern music is perceptible in the high quality of this recording of Turangalila, which because of its enormous scope of emotional and technical expression, is a challenging work to perform convincingly. It is this very drama inherent in the work that caused many of Messiaen's admirers to scorn Turangalila. For example, Boulez would concede to conduct only the first three movements of the symphony, and these only because Messiaen utilized in them serial techniques to a greater or lesser extent.
As with other albums in the Gemini series, the liner notes to this recording are minimal. The small space that is dedicated to information about Quatour repeats the mythology that has grown up around the work, namely, that its very existence is somewhat miraculous because of the wartime conditions under which it was conceived. James Harding reports on the battered piano on which Messiaen performed, the terrible cold weather, and the audience of some 5,000 prisoners--all circumstances that recent studies by musicologist Leslie Sprout and clarinetist Rebecca Rischin have demonstrated to be somewhat hyperbolic.
In her book on Quatour Dr. Rischin supplements Messiaen's statements about the composition and premiere of Quatour with the stories told by the other performers. Rischin interviewed Messiaen's widow and fellow perfomers at the Nazi camp, most of whom had narratives that were far less exciting than Messiaen's version. For example, Messiaen often repeated that the cello at the first performance was so battered that it only had three strings. Cellist Etienne Pasquier recalls with certainty that the instrument he used to perform the quartet had all four strings. He himself chose the instrument from a local music store to which he had been escorted by a Nazi guard who help was crucial in facilitating the performance.
In a forthcoming paper Dr. Sprout points out that Quatour, while it was composed in captivity during World War II, is not really about the captivity or his sufferings as a prisoner of war. Rather, the process of composing Quatour was an escapist maneuver for Messiaen, one that enabled him to forget temporarily the cold, the boredom, and the hardship that plagued the POWs. Sprout compares the reception and myths surrounding Quatour to the works of another French POW, Andre Jolivet, whose Trois complaintes were much more directly related to captivity and war. Sprout's observation on the relationship between music and captivity is worth quoting at length, as it speaks to the enduring musical power of Quatour:
bq. If what we really wanted was immediacy, we too would embrace Jolivet's Trois complaintes, but they are at once too literal and too dependent on topical references we no longer understand. The voices of wartime listeners to the Quartet remind us that the catharsis we experience in Messiaen's music today says more about us than it does about the Quartet.
The three pieces on this EMI release exemplify several of the main themes in Messiaen's musical life and compositional processes. Turangalila-Symphonie is one of three works dealing with the Tristan Legend and the joyfulness of human love. Quatour pour le fin du temps is an expression of Messiaen's Catholic devotion, a passion that deeply influenced most of his musical output. In 1951 Messiaen expressed his lifelong obsession with birdsong in the flute piece, Le Merle Noir. Eventually his interest in birdsong would take Messiaen to seven continents, including North America, where there is a mountain in Utah named after him by a group of fans with whom he had become acquainted while transcribing bird songs there.
Any Messiaen aficionado would probably already have these well-known pieces in her collection, but this CD could serve as a delightful introduction to Messiaen and his most popular pieces.
CUNY - The Graduate Center
1. Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
2. Sprout, "Messiaen, Jolivet, and the Soldier-Composers of Wartime France," Musical Quarterly [forthcoming].