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Olivier Messiaen - The Complete Works For Orchestra

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Artist: Olivier Messiaen

Album: The Complete Works For Orchestra

Label: Hänssler Classic

Review date: Jan. 7, 2009

There have been numerous box sets to celebrate the centenary year of Olivier Messiaen’s birth. They’ve varied in size and scope, the mother load being Deutsche Grammophon’s 32-disc set of Messiaen’s complete works. However, none offers what this eight-disc set from the venerable Hänssler label does: the vast majority of Messiaen’s orchestral works under the supervision of one conductor and performed by a single orchestra. The combination makes for one of the finest birthday tributes imaginable as conductor Sylvain Cambreling illuminates Messiaen’s innovative language and its underpinning spirituality.

Messiaen spent his compositional career depicting what he cherished most – the Christian faith, Gregorian Chant, birdsong, love, and the glories of nature. His orchestral music has been well served on recordings of late, but no conductor quite matches the breadth and intensity Cambreling brings to these unique scores. Part of the achievement is technical. It’s no mean feat to navigate Messiaen’s increasing rhythmic complexities, sudden juxtapositions and numerous timbre shifts, all of which Cambreling accomplishes while never allowing the trees to obscure the forest. Take, for example, the Turangalila symphony’s opening monodic line, with its angular unisons, accented and doubled in octaves. Cambreling and company manage to keep the line moving while bringing out each dynamic shade, leading up to the monumental percussion-drenched harmonic complexes with nuanced inexorability.

Yet, technique is never a substitute for understanding. Turangalîla was completed in 1948, on the cusp of a transitional period for Messiaen, when his interest in new methods of composition was peaked by his association with mavericks such as Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis. As with the finest specialists, Cambreling exposes tradition and innovation in a single gesture on Turangalîla. His rendering of the final movement of The Ascension (1933), a slowly climbing series of string sonorities, is both indebted to the post-romanticism of Ravel and Debussy while more dissonant but static than either; this performance captures the colliding worlds with grace and transparency, giving the structure life and vitality that escape more clinical readings. When the final movement of Illuminations of the Beyond (1992) is reached (a similarly contemplative essay for sweeping strings), the listener becomes aware of a monumental sense of return.

How does one articulate such subjective concepts as vitality, or spirituality, where a performance is concerned? Many of the works on offer here do not have sung texts, so the music is all that’s left. Tempo, articulation, phrasing – all are ingredients, but they need to be present in the right proportion. Cambreling is never afraid to take a slow movement very, very slowly, always a plus where such glacially contemplative music is concerned. Conversely, joyous abandon is also on his interpretive palette, as witnessed in the more jazz-inflected sections of Turangalîla, where he and the orchestra go all out. Cambreling is aided by top-notch soloists, and here, mention must be made of pianist Roger Muraro, who is one of the premier Messiaen interpreters on the scene today. He’s recorded all of Messiaen’s solo piano works, and his virtuosity and vigor inform Turangalîla, From the Canyons to the Stars and Exotic Birds, all of which resemble piano concertos, in that they have demanding piano passages interlaced with virtuosic orchestral writing. However, all of the soloists are in fine form; the choral singing sounds particularly full and resonant on the chant-like sections of the gargantuan Transfiguration of our Lord (1969).

The recordings are vivid, capturing every detail in a perfect combination of focus and resonance. The stellar performances, in combination with their chronological presentation, makes this set an ideal way to trace Messiaen’s compositional development over almost 60 years.

By Marc Medwin

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