Saturday 13 April 2013

Messiaen and Saariaho are brought together in first rate performances from Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet on a new release from Harmonia Mundi

Two unique composers of the 20th and 21st century,  Olivier Messiaen and Kaija Saariaho, have been brought together on a new release from Harmonia Mundi featuring Gloria Cheng (piano) and the Calder Quartet .

HMU 907578
Born in Avignon, France, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was one of the most important composers of the 20th century.  He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven and was taught by Paul Dukas, Maurice Emmanuel, Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré. He was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post held until his death. He taught at the Schola Cantorum de Paris during the 1930s.

On the fall of France in 1940, Messiaen was made a prisoner of war, during which time he composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time) written for the only instruments available to him - a piano, violin, cello and clarinet. It was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners for an audience of inmates and prison guards. After his release, in 1941, he was appointed professor of harmony and, in 1966, professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, positions he held until his retirement in 1978. His many distinguished pupils included Pierre Boulez and Yvonne Loriod, who became his second wife. He died in Clichy-la-Garenne, Paris, France.

Right from his first published work, the Preludes for Piano (1929) Messiaen was using his own modal system, modes of limited transposition. These modes are not plainchant or folk-music but artificial modes based on the equal temperament chromatic scale His music was also influenced by his strong Catholic faith, birdsong and Hindu rhythms. His compositions include his opera Saint-François d'Assise (St Francis of Assisi) (1975–1983), choral works, songs cycles, orchestral works including his Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–48), chamber works, a large number of organ works and piano works including the seven book Catalogue d'oiseaux (1956–58).

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b.1952) studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg and Paris, where she has lived since 1982. She has undertaken studies and research at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) which have had a major influence on her music and her characteristically luxuriant and mysterious textures are often created by combining live music and electronics. Her works to date include the operas L’amour de loin (2000) Adriana Mater (2005), Émilie (2010), a number of works for orchestra and electronics, a cello concerto Notes on Light (2007), chamber works and piano works.

This enterprising new disc combines works for piano, string quartet and piano, viola and cello.

Messiaen uses modes of limited transposition to form the basis of melody and harmony in a number of his Preludes (1929). In the opening prelude, La Colombe, Gloria Cheng manages to beautifully bridge the stylistic link between Debussy and Messiaen in this early work by the 21 year old composer. Her finely judged rests allow the music to hang in the air and there is superb use of upper register of keyboard. Colour is so important in Messiaen’s music and no less so in Chant d’extase where Cheng draws such varied and subtle colours from the music. One moment there is that beautifully limpid piano sound that is so distinctive of the mature composer then Debussy appears in the broader chords. And what a beautifully judged coda this pianist gives us.

Le nombre léger is one of Messiaen’s dazzling evocations of light, perfectly caught  by Cheng whilst in Instants défunts Messiaen’s later developments  are anticipated. This elusive piece, so difficult to hold together and bring off, receives a perfectly structured performance, holding the listener in suspense at each little pause. Again the subtle textures and colours are superb.

Les sons impalpables du rêre is full of dischords and is quixotic in its sudden changes. Again Cheng has a lovely upper register with beautiful bell like passages. Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu also looks forward to Messiaen’s later style with a tolling bell opening the prelude, a haunting piece where, at times, Cheng brings such breadth and colour that there is an orchestral feel to the playing.

Plainte calme retains the feeling of sadness though on a lighter level. Cheng hovers sensitively between sadness and light, drawing so much from the music before it fades away. In the final prelude, Un reflect dans la vent, there is some scintillating playing from Cheng to end this set of preludes. She has a lovely touch, rippling notes, varied tempi ebbing and flowing, in this most Debussian of pieces.

Messiaen’s  Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes  (1991) dates right from the end of his life, completed just before his last major work the aptly named Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations on the beyond) (1988–92). Strident chords from the string quartet seem to struggle with the mellower piano phrases. Soon the piano joins the quartet in a dialogue of rapid phrases. There is a mellower section for solo piano before the quartet enters alone in a strident rhythmic motif. The piano seems to try to calm the music but the quartet has the last word. There is fine playing from both Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet.

Saariaho’s Prelude (2006) receives its premiere recording here in a brilliant performance from Cheng. It opens with an upward flourish before a flowing theme which is repeated before both themes weave together, creating a complex tapestry of sound. The music tries to burst out and does indeed eventually reach a climax but soon calms and becomes gentle and quiet. With a sudden upward and downward scale, the music then just fades. There is so much going on in this wonderful, complex piece that it makes the perfect complement to the Messiaen.

Another premier recording on this disc is Saariaho’s Ballade (2005). Quiet trills played on the upper register of the piano are set against a rising motif on the middle register of the piano. Eventually both combine in a somewhat Debussian melody, very impressionistic. A two note motif contrasts with downward scales as the music becomes more dramatic, building to bold scales against repeated notes. The music slowly quietens against the same two note motif with trills in the upper register.

These are two fine piano works brilliantly played by Gloria Cheng.

Saariaho’s - Je sans un deuxieme Coeur for piano, viola and cello (2003) draws on some of the thematic material from the orchestral score of the first act of her opera Adriana Mater that had been written by that time. It touches on the dreadful subject of rape yet concludes with the woman lovingly carrying a child – ‘I feel a second heart beating next to mine.’

Je dévoil ma peau (I unveil my skin) opens with a piano chord before the strings enter, mournful and agonised. This is repeated before the quartet continues in agonised phrases with downward slides on the strings, whilst the piano adds occasional single notes. The piano chords become more decisive and the strings grow louder and increasingly agitated. There are some amazing textures and timbres from the strings before the music ends by just fading out.

Ouvre-moi, vite (Open up to me, fast) is a fast, slightly manic, intense movement with repeated sounds for piano and strings. The cello hurtles upward in cries of fear and the movement ends suddenly with string and piano chords. Nightmarish sounds from the strings over a rumbling piano motif open Dans la Rêve, elle l’attendait (In her dream, she was waiting). Again the strings give strange sounds with harmonics and slides whilst the piano ruminates in the lower register most of the time. As the strings play strange arpeggios, the piano continues to rumble underneath until the music quietens and fades.

There are rapid piano arpeggios before the strings enter in a fast, nervous, frightening, It faut que j’entre (I must come in) There are cries from the strings then sudden chords from the piano and strings before the rapid theme carries on. A descending theme leads to an almost jazz like piano passage against the violent strings that end the movement.

In the poignant Je sens un deuxieme Coeur (I feel a second heart beating next to mine) there are strained phrases on strings against a limpid piano motif before, slowly, the strings and piano try to come together, the two sounding like cogs that don’t quite mesh as they grind together. The music grows louder until it settles in a kind of tense lullaby, still suffering but with a hidden comfort. As the music slowly quietens and fades there is a kind of resolution.

The performances of these wonderful works, from Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet, are first class. The recording made is excellent and there are informative booklet notes. 

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