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Taste for the Natural, Celestial
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In honor of the Olivier Messiaen centenary, a new box set includes recordings of works from different periods of his life.
August 17, 2008
A Taste for the Natural, and Celestial

OLIVIER MESSIAEN, the visionary French composer who died in 1992, experienced a form of synesthesia, sensing colors when he heard certain sounds or harmonies. Much of his music can certainly have a synesthetic effect on the listener, who during the third movement of “Des Canyons aux Étoiles” (“From the Canyons to the Stars,” 1971-74) might imagine multicolored paintballs exploding against a white canvas in a Jackson Pollock-like frenzy.

This glittering 12-movement orchestral suite was inspired by Messiaen’s 1972 visit to southern Utah and commissioned by the patron Alice Tully in honor of the American bicentennial. It is included in a six-CD boxed set of recordings of works from different periods of his life, originally released on Montaigne and now reissued on the Naïve label in honor of the Messiaen centenary.

Messiaen, a practicing Roman Catholic, described “Des Canyons” as “an act of praise and contemplation” that “contains all the colors of the rainbow.” A composer with a distaste for cities, he was deeply interested in the cosmic, the religious and the natural worlds. Nature, he said, “never displays anything in bad taste.” He had a particular fascination with birds, which he called “the earth’s first musicians,” and this ornithological obsession manifested itself in the transcriptions of bird songs that feature prominently in many of his works. In “Des Canyons,” he represents varieties of orioles with piano, xylorimba and woodwinds.

Reinbert de Leeuw and the Schoenberg Ensemble evoke the striking canyon panoramas with energy and finesse. Marja Bon, a pianist, makes impressive contributions, as does Hans Dullaert in a haunting horn solo. The musicians bring the requisite awe to the finale, “Zion Park and the Celestial City,” which intersperses an ecstatic brass chorale with bird song and conjures a blinding sunrise with a triumphant A major chord of shimmering strings. A peak in Utah was later named Mount Messiaen.

The other major work here is the luminous “Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ” (1965-69), a majestic piece for large choir and orchestra and seven instrumental soloists. Mr. de Leeuw leads the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir and the Brussels BRTN Choir.

Based on texts from Thomas Aquinas, the Gospels and the Latin liturgy, the composition reflects Messiaen’s many musical influences (among them, Debussy, Indonesian gamelan and Greek and Indian rhythms) and his stylistic trademarks (frenzied, rhythmically complex outbursts, kaleidoscopic and exotic percussion, modal harmonies, lyrical interludes and dramatic chord clusters). The fiendishly virtuosic piano writing is played excitingly here by Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife.

There is plenty of bird song intertwined with the transcendent music of “Transfiguration,” from calm melodies to the almost cacophonous “Candor Est Lucis Aeternae,” in which it sounds as if rival bird gangs were battling it out with one another and the singers. The ensembles sound luminous in movements like “Choral de la Sainte Montagne” and “Choral de la Lumière de Gloire.” The choruses sing their plainsong-inspired music with passionate solemnity, and the soloists and vast orchestral forces illuminate the complex score’s myriad colors with fervent devotion.

The almost dizzying palette of “Sept Haïkaï” (1962), inspired by a visit to Japan, is brilliantly illuminated by Pierre Boulez (a student of Messiaen, whose pupils also included Karlheinz Stockhausen and the English composer George Benjamin), the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Ms. Loriod.

Messiaen’s sensation of colors was integral to “Sept Haïkaï,” in which he described particular sonorities representing varying hues, like the “green of the Japanese pines, the white and gold of the Shinto temple.” It also inspired “Couleurs de la Cité Céleste” (1963), a work for piano and small orchestra in which Messiaen musically expresses his vision that “the light of the city was like crystalline jasper.” The musical brushstrokes are conveyed by Ms. Loriod and the ensemble, who also vividly explore the intricacies of “Oiseaux Exotiques” (1955-56) and “Un Vitrail et des Oiseaux” (1986). These performances were recorded live at a 1988 concert celebrating Messiaen’s 80th birthday at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The boxed set also includes “Visions de l’Amen” (1943), a piano duo that hints of the marvels to come in “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,” the mammoth solo work Messiaen wrote the next year for Ms. Loriod. “Visions” is performed here with sensitivity and startling muscularity by Maarten Bon and Mr. de Leeuw. The final movement sounds as though hundreds of bells were pealing simultaneously over the playing of a jubilant organist.

Messiaen, whose prose was as colorful as his music, described those moments as evoking “the entire rainbow of the precious stones of the Apocalypse ringing, clinking, dancing, coloring and perfuming the light of life.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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