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Hommage a Messiaen: 8 Preludes; Selection from: Quatre Etudes de rythme

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

The centenary of Olivier Messiaen's birth provides an occasion for surveying his place in the landscape of musical creation. This recording, which brings together some relatively neglected pieces from his abundant output, represents both an act of homage to the composer and a reflection on the special position his works occupy in 20th-century music. In three segments, it presents compositions of three different types, each written at a difficult time in his life and emphasizing the fundamental role of the piano in his oeuvre. The Préludes are among Messiaen's earliest pieces, written in 1928-29, when he was 20 and still a student at the Paris Conservatoire. Later he described them as a "collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings". All eight were composed under the shock of the death of his mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage. She is "the dove" of "La Colombe", while the heart-rending "Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu" gives us an idea of the traumatic effect of her death on so gentle and sensitive a youth. Pieces dealing with grief and mourning are contrasted with others of great luminosity. Thus the "Chant d'extase", placed at the heart of this sombre landscape, allows us a foretaste of the luminous grace of some of the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus. The cascading gems of "Les Sons impalpables du rêve" cast a musical spell entirely worthy of the finest works of the 1930s. Messiaen ends his cycle with "Un Reflet dans le vent", a piece that is by turns angry and lyrical. This may be a lesson in optimism on the part of a man of faith who was capable of turning to the light in the blackest of all possible circumstances (an ability also manifested in his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written in a prisoner-of-war camp). But it could also be an expression of the hope awoken in him by the work's dedicatee, the pianist Henriette Roget, with whom he was in love. The surreal titles of some of these Préludes adumbrate texts that the composer - who had a fondness for the poetry of Paul Éluard - would later write and set to music, especially those of his song cycle Harawi. But what is most impressive about them is the world of colour they inhabit, a world both highly personal and already strongly defined. Each piece involves detailed associations between sound and colour. According to the composer, the fifth Prélude is "polymodal, superimposing an orange-blue ostinato on chordal cascades in a violet-purple mode that is invested with the timbre of a brass instrument". But it is in "Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu", the masterpiece of the cycle, that the composer most fully discloses his individual treatment of sonority. As Messiaen himself explains: "The bell-like sound combines many modes; the deep resonant tone of the bells and all their high harmonics resolve into luminous vibrations." His subtle use of resonance, inviting us to listen "inside" the bells, turned him into a prophet for generations to come, particularly the composers of spectral music. The composer's passion for nature and birdsong finally became omnipresent in the 1950s, resulting in a series of naturalist works that illustrate two of the more remarkable qualities of Messiaen as man and artist: his exceptional listening powers and his bound¬less capacity for astonishment. The precision and fidelity of his birdsong transcriptions reveal both his amazing ear and his tremendous concern for detail. But as a source of inspiration, this new-found interest also allowed him to escape from the anguish of a life overshadowed first by terrible illness and then by the death of his wife, the violinist Claire Delbos. It is interesting to see this radical move within the wider context of a period marked by other musical aesthetics and languages as well as by techniques that repre¬sented a break with the past. Messiaen made a point of keeping abreast of the work of the younger generation of avant-garde composers, and he himself made an entirely fresh start by writing whole pieces made up of completely new material having no historical point of reference: this was the birdsong that he transcribed systematically. His first "manifesto" was Réveil des oiseaux for piano and orchestra (1953), which is made up entirely of birdsong. By the end of the 1950s, this radicalism, coupled with his love of systemization, had led him to write the vast Catalogue d'oiseaux for piano solo (1956-58), from which two excerpts are included here. "La Bouscarle" (Cetti's Warbler) presents a great variety of birdcalls and suggests a miniature piece of ornithological theatre. The characterization of each call recalls how Messiaen, some years earlier, had defined the dimensions of his musical vocabulary by "individualizing" every sound in a different way. Here each bird has its own timbre, its own speed, its own distinctive musical behaviour. Although written while Messiaen was recovering from a serious illness, the piece still has a great sense of spontaneity and is bathed in light and colour. "L'Alouette Lulu" (Woodlark), conversely, is a night-piece for just two protagonists, a nocturnal poem that bewitches us with its mysterious realism. Like the other pieces that make up the Catalogue d'oiseaux, these two "moments musicaux" seduce us with their immediate freshness, total originality and incredible sonorities. But they also represent an extraordinary example of Messiaen's powers of perception. Just as we hear birds in nature without knowing which will sing and when, or for how long or where and at what distance, so we are invited here to experience the unexpected in an open acoustic space. This instance of listening with no beginning or end or any real sense of direction is related to experiments in open form and the aes¬thetics of chance that other composers actively engaged in research were undertaking at the time. The two Îles de feu both date from 1950 and are studies in rhythm of phenomenal energy. A lover of exoticism, Messiaen dedicated them to Papua, "in other words, all the Papuans", some of whose rites he found seductively attractive by dint of their violence. In the present pieces, this violence finds expression in wild dances, hammered rhythms and a furious hand-to-hand battle with the instrument. In Île de feu II, passages in this vein alternate with more distanced moments of rhythmic speculation in which each sound is affected by a different duration and also by a different "profile". These passages reflect the research into rhythm that Messiaen undertook at the end of the 1940s, when his reflections on time led him to create a new vocabulary and to organize his new time values in an altogether revolutionary way. The end of the piece borrows from another type of music found elsewhere in the world, using what Messiaen himself described as "the rules derived from the `jātis', classical Hindu melodies of the Vedic period". The two Îles de feu form a dazzling pair of works attesting to Messiaen's powerful interest in neo-primitivism - one thinks of his fascination with The Rite of Spring and his respect for André Jolivet's Mana. Their very particular virtuosity and gestural language certainly owe a great deal to the pianism of Yvonne Loriod, the composer's second wife, who following the war became his preferred interpreter and a source of inspiration. The effulgence of their sonorities, their savage energy and their rhythmic boldness make an impressive impact.

From the Artist

The present recording features highly contrastive aspects of Messiaen's personality. The composer was a visionary who retained his independence throughout the 20th century and invited us in the process to rethink the way in which we listen to music. As a man, he was secretive by nature, with the gentleness and modesty of some of his Préludes. He also had the capacity for marvelling at the world around him, which, together with his powers of listening, finds expression in his Catalogue d'oiseaux. And he was intellect¬ually inquisitive, a quality which, like his sense of order, is reflected in his Études de rythme. I hope that this homage in the form of a portrait will encourage others to share my love not only for this great creator of time and colour but also for this mysterious and radiant man.
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Product Details

  • Performer: Pierre-Laurent Aimard
  • Composer: Olivier Messiaen
  • Audio CD (October 14, 2008)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • ASIN: B001EUB6RG
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #182,956 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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With the centenary of his birth approaching in December 2008, there has been a lot of work by Messiaen performed recently. I know it makes me an apostate to say this, but I remain reserved about the greatness of this composer, finding some of his Catholic mysticism unctuous at best. I cannot contest the fact, however, that some of Messiaen's works for piano are really remarkable, and when performed by the astonishing French pianist Pierre Laurent Aimard, become completely compelling. The early 8 Preludes included here sound like music that Debussy might have composed if he'd lived 15 years longer: moody, complex, and gorgeously colored. While I sometimes grow weary of Messiaen's bird imitations, the two excerpts from the Catalogue d'oiseaux included here come off smashingly. So regardless of how you might feel about Messiaen, I recommend this album for the amazing pianism of M. Aimard. He might yet make a convert of me.
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With the extended Product Description, which is the actual text of the package booklet, and Jeff Abell's fine review, I find little to add, and in the main I am in agreement with Abell regarding Messiaen as a composer and with this particular recording. Perhaps translating the poetic French titles of the Preludes may help the reader: The Dove; Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape; The Light Number; Dead Instants; The Impalable Sounds of the Dream; Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell; Calm Plaint; and A Reflection in the Wind. These works certainly are cast with the melancholy of Messiaen's grief, but they are wonderously complex, moody, and interesting with their dissonant chords and eventual resolution. Indeed, in relief, two picturesque, bird-inspired works (Cetti's warbler and the wood lark) follow, somewhat lightening the mood with humor, though I find their length taxing. The two studies of Isle of Fire are a radical break, with their powerful beat, runs, and crashing of notes. The engineering of the album is excellent, with just enough audio bounce to give depth and clarity to the piano. Finally, the performance of Pierre-Laurent Aimard is sensitive and, when need be, strong. I give ***** for his interpretation. This is a diverse program of mid 20th-century classical invention that deserves repeated listening.
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Pierre-Laurent Aimard continues to be at the forefront of pianists who perform the piano works of Olivier Messiaen at practically every recital he offers. In this recording, very appropriately titled 'Hommage a Messiaen' he has recorded the early Préludes written in 1928 and breathing much the same purified air as those of Claude Debussy. Aimard has a particular affinity for these eight preludes -The Dove; Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape; The Light Number; Dead Instants; The Impalpable Sounds of the Dream; Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell; Calm Pliant; A Reflection in the Wind - and manages through his inimitable virtuosity to allow us to enjoy the Impressionistic sounds of these works while emphasizing those aspects of these early works that would lead to Messiaen's later works. There is a restrained sense of melancholy here that makes the Préludes suggest the path toward spiritualism that remained in all the other works of Messiaen,

From these delicate pieces Aimar wisely moves into excerpts from what became and obsession with the composer - the music and the flights of birds. From the 'Catalogue of the Birds' Aimard offers 'Cetti's Warbler' and 'The Wood Lark': for this listener these works are the most poignant ones on this album. And as though to bring the listener up to date with the changes in complexity of pianistic language, Aimard closes this recital with the 'Four Etudes of Rhythm" the 'Isle of Fire 1 and 2.

This is pianistic artistry at its best form one of the most important artists on the stage today. It is an album of great beauty, flawlessly engineered and recorded. Grady Harp, December 10
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