Olivier Messiaen

February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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Mixtape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mixtape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mixtape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more

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New releases: Messiaen, Paul Dolden, Richard Uttley, iamamiwhoami, Davíð Brynjar Franzson, Shivers

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Among the crop of more interesting recent releases is a reissue of Messiaen‘s complete organ works that is easily the most affordable currently available. Treasure Island Music has brought together the famous recordings made by Jennifer Bate in the late 1970s/early 1980s—originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis—in a 6-CD slimline box set costing around £20, which for 7½ hours of music is an exceptional deal. But it’s not just about economy, these performances were extensively shaped by Messiaen himself, Bate working in close collaboration with him during the recording process. Two of the discs were even recorded at La Trinité in Paris, on the very organ where the works were first composed (and, in many cases, premièred), the remaining discs recorded at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. But it’s not just about having the composer’s imprimatur either; Bate’s renditions of these complex works are navigated with stunning clarity—never is it apparent that these recordings are several decades old—and her fidelity to the scores is in many ways greater than that of Messiaen’s own recordings. Read more

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Messiaen on Speed (or Dieu parmi nous – what not to do)

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Being Christmas Day, organists up and down the land will be putting Messiaen‘s Dieu parmi nous through its paces. In the UK, it’s become practically as ubiquitous as Handel’s Messiah, so with the wonderful and timeless “Messiah on Crack” in mind, i offer you what we might perhaps call “Messiaen on Speed”.

At the 2001 Proms, Wayne Marshall gave an organ recital that included the last two movements of La Nativité. Whether Marshall was drunk, over-excited, showing off, taking the piss, eager to get home early, or some wild combination of all the above i have no idea, but the result rather boggles the mind. Marshall takes most of the music at a tempo so fast as to be way beyond ridiculous, his fingers literally spilling over the keys—wrong notes a go-go—sounding like an organ transcription of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s more frantic studies. Inevitably, all the detail of Messiaen’s material is completely lost, and the closing toccata simply has to be heard to be believed. Marshall turns Messiaen’s coruscating hymn of joy into a excruciating but hilarious exercise in meaningless velocity. Oh, and the organ’s out of tune too.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

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Mixtape #6 : Piano

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For years, the piano has been to me an object of fascination and awe; its range of capabilities, expressive potential and timbral variety are breathtaking. Also for years, these qualities were the very things preventing me from attempting to compose something for it. Listening to piano music is a supreme joy, and so this new mixtape is a concoction of some of the more interesting examples that have been occupying my ears of late. It also represents some of my favourite composers, all of them bringing something unique to the instrument. Read more

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Interpretations on Record: Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

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Radio 3 now calls it simply “CD Review”, but a few years back it was known as “Interpretations on Record”. Each programme focuses on a particular composition, examining the available recordings with the intention of choosing one that is arguably better than the others. This is an edition of the programme dating back almost 12 years, when Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie was the work under the spotlight. Presented by Michael Oliver and lasting a little over 70 minutes, it includes fascinating information about the earliest performances of the piece, as well as a useful discussion on the difficulties it presents from a recording perspective. Read more

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Messiaen’s Méditations – the greatest organ work of all time?

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Trinity Sunday, and an opportunity to share one of the most prized CDs of my collection. It’s a complete recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s organ cycle Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, performed by Messiaen himself on the organ of the Parisian church where he was organist for most of his life, the appropriately named La Trinité. The nine meditations (which i shall be hearing in concert in a month’s time) are among Messiaen’s finest creations – still controversial for some due to his quirky creation of a “communicable language” that he then uses to “say” phrases from Scripture. Nonetheless, the sounds and textures are unique in the organ repertory, bearing little resemblance to conventional – or, indeed, any other – organ music. Despite taking liberties with his own score, Messiaen’s performances are incredibly exciting, and the recording is marvellously vivid, capturing the timbres brilliantly (the deep bass notes are, literally, breathtaking). Read more

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Mixtape #4 : Miniatures

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This new mixtape began life as one of my playlists on iTunes, which simply specified that it should only include tracks under two minutes in duration. Surprisingly, 815 tracks from my music library fulfil this criteria, amounting to over 15 hours of music. Not surprisingly, this playlist makes for an eclectic and surreal listen, while at the same time providing a kind of ‘distillation’ of the music that i love. Here then, is a selection from that playlist, with a slight emphasis on music i’ve listened to more recently; almost 70 minutes of music stitched together with the aid of a variety of delightful advertisement spots by the wonderful and very innovative Raymond Scott. What this lot tells you about my music collection is anyone’s guess…

Here’s the complete tracklisting: Read more

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