HumanitiesWeb.org - Olivier Messiaen - The atomic bomb of contemporary music [Recommended Recordings]
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Site last updated
26 June, 2013

Olivier Messiaen
Recommended Recordings



"The music of our time is quite a natural continuation of the music of the past; doubtless there are changes, but no rupture."

Catalogue d'oiseaux, Petites esquisses
(Haakon Austbö)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was one of a number of French postmodernist composers working at the end of the 20th century who characterized their music less in terms of Ravel's or Debussy's nostalgic Impressionism, opting instead for a ruthless exploration of music's greater timbral--even mathematical--possibilities. His two-hour work for solo piano, Catalogue d'oiseaux (1955-56), is a collection of bird sounds that are in no way "impressionistic." The Catalogue d'oiseaux is part of a three-work series with an ornithological theme and actually outdoes Ravel or Debussy in conveying the more "natural" expression of birds in the wilderness. On this superb Naxos release, Hakan Austbo masterfully captures on the piano Messiaen's "bird songs" in the wild, dancing, and playful spirit that nature, not Ravel or Debussy, had intended them to be heard. (review by Paul Cook)

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
(Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra members; Pierre Boulez, conductor)
Pierre Boulez's performances of Olivier Messiaen's scores, especially the tough ones, are legendary, and "Chronochromie" is the composer's most complex and abstract work. Rising to the challenge, Boulez directs what is clearly its finest recording--not that there's been all that much competition! Of course, he has the great advantage of the Cleveland Orchestra--easily the world's finest ensemble in the field of contemporary music, and a DG recording of extreme clarity. The two couplings are less difficult, but let's not kid ourselves, this isn't a record for the casual listener looking for a pretty tune. It's great music, but it demands commitment. (review by David Hurwitz)

Quartet for the End of Time
(Christoph Eschenbach, Eric Halen, et al; Houston Symphony Chamber Players)
Famously, albeit sadly, conceived, Olivier Messiaen's finest chamber work is a dance with circumstance and a tremendous flowering in the face of adversity. Written while the composer was a wartime prisoner in 1941, Quartet for the End of Time sounds teetery, vulnerable, and brittle. But it also features shearing whips from the clarinet that make the creative turbulence unmistakable. Christoph Eschenbach's piano is astounding, playing quiet atmospheres in the second movement--and again in the final movement--that couple with the strings to set a diaphanous feel, one where light, scant though it is, enlivens the mood. Messiaen envisioned the colors, he recalled, as a partial result of limited food rations, and the shoddy instruments on which he and others gave the original performance (while still imprisoned) only accentuated how sensitively he shaped the piece's dynamics. Although it builds slowly, this is an inventively rhythmic piece, with the clarinet-led ensemble pelting quietude with motion. Note also that the quartet's first movement is Messiaen's first incursion into bird sounds, something which occupied him for the rest of his composing career. (review by Andrew Bartlett)

Saint François d'Assise
(Jose van Dam, Dawn Upshaw, et al; Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Hallé Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor)
Visionary French composer Olivier Messiaen spent nearly a decade writing St. Francis of Assisi, his four-hour opera inspired by the saint's life--including the famous legend of preaching to the birds, featuring the composer's mesmerizing musical aviary. This spectacular live recording from Salzburg reveals the work as a profoundly moving summation of a lifetime of discovery. (review by Thomas May)

Turangalîla-Symphonie
(Jeanne Loriod, Yvonne Loriod; Bastille Opera Orchestra; Myung-Whun Chung, conductor)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) lived in the shadow of Ravel and Debussy but managed early in his career to develop a musical language that often embraced Hindu and Greek rhythms, bizarre mathematical arrangements, and palindromic notational clusters, giving his music its distinct (and sometimes humorous and playful) character. All of this is found in his masterpiece, the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948), a mix of tonal and atonal statements framed by the insertion of massive chordal pronouncements, particularly in the first and last movements. Also, you can hear the odd sounds of the ondes Martenot, a rarely used electronic instrument that shoots seamlessly up and down the musical scale (this is where some of the work's playfulness comes from), making it one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century. (review by Paul Cook)

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