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Messiaen Des Canyons Aux Étoiles Review

Album. Released 2003.  

BBC Review

This is a score that requires a shockingly high standard of virtuosity from every...

Andrew McGregor 2003

What is going on? There's so much Messiaen being added to (and returning to) the catalogue at the moment, I wonder whether we'll look back at the last couple of years and see that this was either some kind of golden period for Messiaen recordings, or that there was a genuine reassessment of his music underway at least by a generation of performers, interpreters and record labels. It's altogether harder to know how the regular record buyer is reacting to these riches without knowing the sales figures for each new release.

Myung-Whun Chung has already played a significant part in this process (whatever it turns out to be!), and hard-on-the-heels of his DG recording of La Transfiguration, here's the late Messiaen orchestral epic that outdoes the Turangalila Symphony in its breadth and colour. 'From the Canyons to the Stars' was intended to mark the bicentennial of the United States in 1976, and Messiaen's music links the land itself, the canyons of Utah - whose colourful layers reach back in geological time - with the stars sparkling in the clear-blue desert sky, their light emanating from long ago and far away. A sense of colour then, natural majesty, a palette of every shade of red and rich orange-brown; a timeless quality that reaches far back in time and human history...also a direct analogy with the American flag: the stars in the night sky and the geological stripes of the canyons.

The variety of sounds is staggering, especially when you consider the forces Messiaen was using here; a standard symphonic wind section, to be sure, but only 13 solo strings, a wind-machine, thundersheet and the newly invented 'geophone' -lead shot rotated in a large flat drum to make a sound somewhere between water lapping on a beach, and shifting sands - plus a major percussion section. This isn't the orchestra of Turangalila, a mere 44 performers, yet the impact they're able to make through the kaleidoscope of colours and the subtle use of chamber-sized ensembles is immense - sometimes this feels like Messiaen's biggest orchestral work. Did I mention the birds? They're a vital part of the soundscape, almost another set of instruments again - the Mockingbird, the Wood Thrush, the White-Browed Robin - set against the 'Interstellar Call' of Jean-Jacques Justafré, whose solo horn-playing is superb. Special praise also for pianist Roger Muraro, who's a fine impersonator of winged wildlife.

This is a score that requires a shockingly high standard of virtuosity from every player, and gets it - the French Radio players are thrilling to listen to, Chung is Messiaen's devoted disciple, and he knows just how to frame his soloists, unleash the exotic colours and pace the whole piece as it sprawls over two CDs. Actually, durations of 48 and 45 minutes mean that there was at least another three-quarters of an hour to play with, and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sony recording is much more generously filled. But...this new one feels warmer, more affectionate, and has a demonstration-class recording to win you over, one of those miraculous mixes where you hear every last detail, yet the engineers have still managed to give each instrument its own acoustic halo without separating it unrealistically from the ensemble as a whole.

Time stands still when you immerse yourself in this remarkable new recording. Messiaen always was better at eternity than almost anyone else. Go on, lose yourself in the canyons of Utah under a star-filled azure sky.

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