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Messiaen: Saint François d'Assise / van Dam, Upshaw, Nagano Box set

4.3 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Audio CD, Box set, August 10, 1999
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Product Description

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The most ambitious work by 20th-century French master Olivier Messiaen, Saint Francis is also his most all-embracing. He spent nearly a decade creating the opera, which not only encapsulates the composer's abiding Catholic faith but draws on a lifetime of musical discovery and brings together the elements of Messiaen's far-ranging, rich vocabulary: birdsong and nature as a source for music, Eastern modes, complex rhythms derived from ancient Greek poetry and Hindu talas, plainsong, and percussive gamelan-like sonorities, to list a few of the most salient. Messiaen chose Francis for operatic representation as the saint "most like Christ" and wrote his own libretto, using the gentle poetry of the Fioretti. The opera avoids dramatic tension but instead--almost ritualistically--portrays the "infusion of grace" through a series of encounters, including an angel playing music that offers a taste of heaven's bliss (marvelously orchestrated for ondes Martenot) and the famous scene of St. Francis preaching to the birds, in which Messiaen stacks multiple bird calls on top of each other in an inspired passage of "organized chaos."

This live recording was made during 1998's Salzburg Festival, and Kent Nagano (who had studied the work directly with Messiaen during the opera's premiere in 1983) marshals the score's 119 players and enormous chorus into a spectacular series of symphonic frescoes. He is sensitive both to the resonant use of silence in the score's interstices and--most memorably--to Messiaen's rare achievement in creating music to express "perfect joy." And the cast he works with is unbeatable: José van Dam conveys immense compassion and presence in the almost unbelievably strenuous demands of the title role, while Dawn Upshaw sings the angel with a penetrating purity. This masterpiece demands time to get to know it--more than the four hours it takes to unfold--but once you know it, its rewards are immense. --Thomas May

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Product Details

  • Performer: Olivier Messiaen, Kent Nagano, Dawn Upshaw, José van Dam, Hallé Orchestra, et al.
  • Audio CD (August 10, 1999)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 4
  • Format: Box set
  • Note on Boxed Sets: During shipping, discs in boxed sets occasionally become dislodged without damage. Please examine and play these discs. If you are not completely satisfied, we'll refund or replace your purchase.
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • ASIN: B00000JSAO
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,570 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD
Messiaen ranks very high on my list of favorite 20th century composers. Most of the reasons are those that he gives himself: his emphasis on emotion rather than calculation as the base of music (Messiaen was very anti-12-tone music as he finds it dry and impersonal, for the most part), and his exoticism. This comes through extremely well in this work and this recording, which features José van Dam (who sang in the Paris premiere) in the title role. Mr. van Dam announced that this performance of the work would be his last in the role, which was a wise decision as there is no way that he could possibly equal the strength with which he carries the role of a Saint. For an orchestra of over 110 pieces, including 3 ondes martenot, Nagano is the best possible choice as he keeps the music from being ponderous or dry with the caution often used to keep such large ensembles together. The music's intensely rhythmic side (as in the opening ritornelli for xylophone, marimba and wooden percussion) comes across beautifully crisp and dry. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the lyricism, including the scenes with Dawn Upshaw as the angel, is very fluid. The opera has moments of solemn faith as well as exuberance, both of which are equally strong forces.
The work is intensely dramatic while never crossing the line into being Romantic. Although the orchestra is of Wagnerian dimension, the voice is always of primary importance. Much of the singing is unaccompanied, and many of the soliloquies have a monady-like quality that makes the language equal to the notes, and sometimes above. Although the music is intensely modern, the vocal parts harken back to Gregorian chant. The connection as far as the Catholic content is obvious.
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Format: Audio CD
As a lover of opera, Messiaen and 20th century music in general, this was a natural choice for me; after wanting it for years I finally got it for Christmas. I finished it after over a week of listening to one of the eight tableaux at a time; as many reviewers have already said, that is probably the best way to listen to it. It's hard to swallow in one big gulp.

You see, everything about this piece is huge. Messiaen spent four years composing and another four orchestrating it and used every trick in his book, from palindrome and Greek rhythms to invented scales to birdsong. It is scored for seven soloists, an orchestra of 119 (7474-4633, three ondes Martenot, strings, and no less than 41 percussion instruments distributed among five players), and a choir of 150. There are sections in the score in which the conductor has to read upwards of 70 staves in which everybody is doing something different. The score itself comes in eight softcover volumes-one for each of the eight tableaux--on oversized paper and tips the scale at a total of just over fifty pounds. If you want a copy of the score, you'll have to fork over from $250 to $350 each for individual volumes and about $2,500 for the whole thing.

(I will say this, however. Although it seems to be every reviewer's favorite subject, the length of four hours is not unusual for opera. Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro", for example, tends to clock in at just over three; Wagner's operas tend to go from three to four and a half hours and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" lasts for three and a half. Why, the original version of Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" goes for nearly five!
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Format: Audio CD
I own both recorded versions of the complete St. Francis (the world-premiere version conducted by Ozawa as well as the present one). Most of the struggles recorded in the reviews have to do less with the operatic dimension than with the religious content. The latter is what the composer was attempting to render, and that means that if you want to know what he was after you have to read up on Francis and the founding of the Franciscan order, and what follows in the creation over time of the "legend" of St. Francis: a series of "famous" episodes that individually and collectively rendered the message of a saint who was after all a mystic and therefore a vehicle or vessel through which the divine passed in communicating with human kind. In brief, this is an opera which attempts to render a musical equivalent of a mystical experience, or a series of mystical experiences. From that perspective, the focus is finally not on what happens on stage but what happens in the orchestra, to which the on-stage action contributes as a set of "explanatory historical footnotes," so to speak.

Take the opening scene: one monk is scared to death "J'ai peur" over and over, to which Francis responds "La joie" (i.e., "joy"). "The sky and the earth" that petrifies one creates joy in the other. What are the instruments doing? Why, they're doing what they always do in Messiaen's music: they are literal reproductions of displays of the kinetic energy which is the building block of all physical reality. As such, these sounds are literally "God-given"--not merely "represented" on-stage dramatically, but literally present there physically.
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