Messiaen Visions de l'Amen Review

Album. Released 2004.  

BBC Review

They produce an orchestral range of colour, and there seems to be an eternity of space...

Andrew McGregor 2004

When Olivier Messiaen arrived at the Paris Conservatoire in 1941 as the new harmony teacher, he must have made quite an impression. He was 32 years old; he'd just been released from Stalag VIII-A in Silesia where he'd spent 8 months as a prisoner-of-war, and where his Quartet for the End of Time had been written and performed in front of 5,000 prisoners. Messiaens fingers had been left damaged by the terrible cold, yet despite this his piano playing was remarkably beautiful. One of Messiaen's pupils was already a formidably talented pianist, the 17-year-old Yvonne Loriod, and Messiaen's next major work was written for them to perform together on two pianos: Visions de l'Amen.

The notes in this new recording paint a fascinating picture of the first performance in 1943, a semi-secret art gallery concert in Nazi-occupied Paris... they also point to the teacher-pupil relationship enshrined in the music; the way the simple chords in Loriod's part in the opening Amen de la création are given life and sustenance by the creation theme rising from the depths of Messaiens piano 2. Perhaps that's not all; Loriod was already Messiaen's muse, and she was to become his second wife. So as the pianos depict orbiting planets in the next movement, as they interact flirtatiously in the longest section Amen du désir; as angels, saints and songbirds dance us towards the final Amen de la consommation, with Loriod's part propelling us heavenwards with spectacular virtuosity...maybe this tells us as much about Messiaen's relationship with his pupil as it does about his Catholic faith?

Steven Osborne's recent recording of Messiaen's Vingts regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus was spectacularly good. Here he takes Loriod's part, while Martin Roscoe sits on Messiaen's piano stool. They produce an orchestral range of colour, and there seems to be an eternity of space and time for Messaien's music to vibrate, with its whiffs of incense and flutterings of birdsong. Yet this is one of the faster recordings, and the enormous dynamic range (from the most delicate pppp to a Steinway-threatening triple forte) is accommodated superbly by a demonstration-class recording.

Messiaen and Loriod's own performance(s) are uniquely valuable. Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith on Regis offer a similarly breathtaking exuberance and intense joy to Osborne and Roscoe, but the quality of the Hyperion recording takes this new one to another level. Osborne's performances of the three solo piano pieces are also excellent, but let's not pretend that's why you'd buy the CD; it's the Vision thing. Hill and Frith are at budget price, while this is full price, but if I had to choose between them, it would be this one...alongside Mr. and Mrs. Messiaen's, telling us far more about their relationship than they ever could in words.

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