Now from Gramophone label of the year, Delphian Records www.delphianrecords.co.uk comes the tantalising prospect of a recently discovered work by Messiaen. In 2012, pianist Peter Hill was working on Messiaen’s sketches when he came across several pages of manuscript that appeared to be a fully completed work for piano. There is, Peter Hill tells us in his excellent booklet notes, a note in the margin dating the composition to August 1961 whilst he was staying at Petichet in the French Alps. The realisation of the piece by Hill required deciphering of the composer’s pencil manuscript and some work on the fragmentary middle section.
Peter Hill now includes the premiere performance of the re-discovered piece, La Fauvette Passerinette (The subalpine warbler) in a recital of other works by Messiaen and a diverse range of composers such as Ravel, Stockhausen, George Benjamin, Henri Dutilleux, Toru Takemitsu and Peter Sculthorpe.
Peter Hill is no stranger to the piano works of Messiaen having worked with the composer between 1986 and 1991 while recording the complete piano works for Unicorn Kanchana. Hill cleverly divides his recital into five sections, Prelude, Étude, Birds and Landscapes, Memorial and Postlude.
The section headed Prelude opens with Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Oiseaux tristes No2 from Miroirs (1904-5). Hill, right from the beginning, opens out this music, connecting it with later developments. It is his phrasing and crystalline touch that add so much, assisted by the very clear and detailed recording. This is a beautifully laid out performance.
Olivier Messiaen features next in an early work, La Colombe No.1 from Huit Préludes (1928/9) where we hear this composer’s distinctive harmonies though still owing a debt to earlier French composers such as Ravel. It is exquisitely played as is Messiaen’s Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935) with its firm, decisive chords, beautiful phrasing and fine dynamics.
We move into the next section, Étude with more Messiaen, his Île de feu 1 No.1 from Quatre Études de rythme (1949-50). There are dense rhythmic chords in the opening of this more advanced piece, with Hill bringing his fine understanding and musicianship to Messiaen’s varying rhythms and challenging writing.
We then move on to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) with his Klavierstück VII (1954). Many people fight shy of this composer yet Hill clearly shows the links that can be made as he carefully phrases and paces this rather engaging piece. It could tend to sound rather fragmented were it not for Hill’s ability to reveal the overall structure so well. There is much of Ravel’s and Messiaen’s ear for tiny details and sonorities in Stockhausen’s writing.
Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VIII (1954) sits very well with Klavierstück VII not surprising given that it was the composer’s intension for the works to be played together. Here we have a more dynamic piece leaping from gentle to more incisive phrases as though something greater is trying to break out.
With Julian Anderson’s (b.1967) Etude No.1 from Etudes for piano (1995- ) we return to a more linear flow yet not without some demanding writing brilliantly done by Hill.
George Benjamin’s (b.1960) studied with Messiaen. His Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm No.1 from Three Studies for solo piano (1982-5) has a tentative opening that gently leads into a lovely little theme which slowly develops. There is a little of Messiaen here but Benjamin very much shows his own individuality in this terrific work that grows in strength as it progresses. There are some fine rhythmic structures brilliantly handled by Hill. The piece develops through some strikingly brilliant dynamic passages as well as some beautifully delicate bars in a formidable performance by Hill.
We next come to Birds and Landscapes where we return to Messiaen with his La Traquet stapazin No.4 (Book 2) from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-8) where Hill provides an exquisitely structured performance, perfectly judged, bringing out all of the composer’s sudden dynamic contrasts and rhythms and the most lovely quieter moments. Hill displays a rare spontaneity and, indeed, authority.
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) studied with Messiaen’s harmony teacher, Jean Gallon. His D’ombre et de silence No.1 from Trois Préludes (1973-88) brings lovely harmonies and sonorities in this fine performance from Hill.
It is sad that Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) died on 8th August this year, too recently for the booklet notes of this disc to reflect the fact. Stars from Night Pieces (1972-3) follows perfectly with rippling chords and a fine breadth that evokes a night sky over the vast Australian outback within its short duration.
Douglas Young’s (b.1947) River from Dreamlandscapes, Book 2 (1977-85) also seems like a natural progression with darker chords in the opening that are repeated before gently opening out and flowing forward, finding many little tributaries to divert the ear. Part way through there is a dynamic, incisive section with strong chords that soon fade to the earlier gentler sounds. It is expertly played here by Hill.
We now come to the Premiere Recording of Olivier Messiaen’s La Fauvette passerinette (1961). Here Messiaen does not use the landscape and time of day to construct this work as he did in his earlier birdsong inspired works. This substantial piece was set to mark a new development using just the birdsongs. But the composer does give a written preface describing the scene. It opens with a lovely flow as Messiaen’s distinctive intervals are heard as the fauvette passerinettes Subalpine warbler) sing a duet before the music introduces other birds, the Sardinian warbler, a flock of spotted cuckoos and the Orphean warbler. The passerinettes return again as they do in the coda but not before the other birds have their say. Hill’s ability to reproduce Messiaen’s rhythms and phrasing is superb. This is an absolutely riveting performance.
Memorial brings Tristan Murail’s (b.1947): Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire… (in memoriam Olivier Messiaen) (1992) with crystalline bell like sonorities beautifully phrased by Hill with some especially fine dynamics overlaid with florid figurations. No collection of 20th century piano music of this nature would be complete without Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) whose Rain Tree Sketch II (1992) brings all of his refinement and ear for the tiniest detail. Likewise, Peter Hill’s fine musician’s ear for detail reveals every little subtlety and nuance.
Finely with the section headed Postlude we return to Messiaen and his Morceau de lecture à vue (1934) a gentler, thoughtful early work finely played by Hill and which nicely rounds off this superb recital.
This superb recital should not be missed and not just because of the exciting new Messiaen work. All of the other works on this disc receive superb performances from Peter Hill. The recording made in the Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, Scotland is first class. There are excellent, very full notes from Peter Hill.