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Messiaen 80th Birthday Concert and other works

Sept haïkaï, for piano, 13 winds, 6 percussion & 8 violins
Couleurs de la cité céleste, for piano, 13 winds & 6 percussion
Un Vitrail et des oiseaux, for piano, 17 winds, trumpet & 8 percussion
Oiseaux exotiques, for piano, 11 winds & 7 percussion

Ensemble InterContemporain/Pierre Boulez
with Yvonne Loriod (piano)

Montaigne/Naive MO 782131
[In boxed set of 6 discs including also Visions de l'Amen; Les Canyons aux étoiles & La Transfiguration etc MO782179]

Olivier Messiaen's 80th birthday was celebrated in Paris with this concert, recorded live on 26 11 1968 at the Theatre de Champs Elysees. The sound quality is excellent sound and it has become a historic document. There may by now be competitive more modern recordings of some of the works, but this one is important for showing how, under Pierre Boulez's tutelage, the InterContemporain Ensemble had reached a comfortable familiarity with the music's relatively new and strange language, playing "as if the technique was already absorbed, as if these works were already classics" (Claude Samuel).

Twenty years on the strangeness has become familiar, but there most still be only relatively few listeners who can bring to bear the theological, ornithological, and musicological learning which contributes to the creation of Messiaen's superficially very familiar and consistently exotic sound world, with its seductive surface attraction.

These performances have the inestimable presence at the piano of Messiaen's wife and long term musical partner, her performances having established a bench mark for this oeuvre; most later Messiaen pianist specialists have either studied with her or have otherwise been deeply influenced by her pioneering championship of his piano music, which is well represented in the boxed set to be released next week to mark the centenary of Olivier Messiaen birth.

Besides the 80th birthday concert, the six discs dating from 1988-91 include major works from the period 1943-1986: the Visions de l'Amen for two pianos, a favourite since its exciting interpretations by the young sisters Labeque and live in London by the composer with Yvonne Loriod, has a vivid performance by Marten Bon & Reinbert de Leeuw; the exotic Les Canyons aux étoiles is superbly brought to life by the Asko and Schönberg Ensembles, and La Transfiguration (a huge work to be featured 27 July in the 2008 Proms) in an Amsterdam performance under Reinbert de Leeuw endorsed in superlatives by the composer, and sounding magnificent. That disc carries detailed notes including three pages of the names of birds, whose songs are diligently transcribed into the score; it is also pertinent that Boulez is quoted as saying that he has no special attraction for birds! Messiaen's inspirations encompass many dimensions, some of which cannot be experienced by many devotees, such as his deeply felt colour/keys synesthesia (there was a recent Messiaen event at RAM at which movements of the Quartet for the End of Time were played with a painter responding to the music on stage).

Nor should non-Catholics be troubled by the extensive biblical quotations which have inspired so much of the music. Messiaen's imperishable later music is receiving profound audience responses in a current resurgence of interest. It can be felt as devotional but listened to as absolute music by those who do not share his persuasion - "I speak of faith to atheists and of birds to people who never got up at four in the morning to listen to the awakening of birds".

At an unmissable bargain price this box is a re-release to snap up [MO782179] and readers may also be tempted to explore others of the Naïve Montaigne catalogue [UK Distributor New Note].

Peter Grahame Woolf