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Two Piano Music Of Messiaen And Debussy

Two Piano Music Of Messiaen And Debussy

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MESSIAEN Visions de l’Amen. DEBUSSY En Blanc et noir Ursula Oppens, Jerome Lowenthal (pn) ÇEDILLE CDR 90000 119 (60:51)

In 1941, Olivier Messiaen was released from Görlitz prison camp, where he had been taken following the fall of France in the Second World War. Visions de l’Amen for two pianos was his first large work after this. The listener will search in vain for any shred of a reaction to the war in this music: Messiaen was inhabiting an intellectual and spiritual space far removed from the ravages of war. It was premiered in Paris in 1943 by the composer and his brilliant 19-year-old pupil, and eventual wife, Yvonne Loriod. Her part—taken by Ursula Oppens on the current disc—“has the rhythmic difficulties, the bunches of chords, everything concerned with speed, allure, and quality of sound”; his had “the principal melody, the thematic elements, everything demanding emotion and power.” So Messiaen wrote in the preface to the score.

Messiaen offers seven meditations on various theological subjects, somewhat tenuously linked by the idea of “Amens,” much as he was to do in his next great cycle, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus , where another difficult-to-translate word, regard , is used to provide cohesion to the 20 meditations on the birth of Christ. In Visions de l’Amen , the first piece represents an act of creation—no less than the Creation of the Universe—while the last describes the final Consummation. The second and fifth illustrate the adoration of God by cosmic and celestial creatures; the third and sixth describe the suffering of Jesus and of humanity; the central fourth piece is about desire “in its highest spiritual sense,” as the composer put it.

A considerable degree of cohesion over these disparate pieces is achieved by the use of a single theme, the theme of Creation, in four sequences of chords. This provides the material for most of the seven movements. As he was to do with Vingt Regards , Messiaen allots the first movement to a statement of the theme. In this case, over 39 measures, it is played five times by Lowenthal while Oppens contributes metrically complex, bell-like music (“bells shivering in the Light,” as the composer put it). The opening, pianissimo , is wonderfully evocative. The low chords of Creation, deep inside the piano, are barely more than a cosmic growl, Oppens and Lowenthal drawing in the listener compellingly. This opening Amen of Creation is one long crescendo and the players sculpt the increasing dynamics with complete conviction so that the apparently abrupt cut-off is surprising, even on repeated listening.

Jerome Lowenthal observes in his CD notes that, on its first performance, Visions de l’Amen aroused immediate enthusiasm in some and annoyance in others, and it is in pieces like the fourth movement, Amen of Desire , that the possibly annoyed listener is tested the most. Messiaen has two themes of Desire, the first somewhat sweet, the second extraordinarily saccharine, if vigorous. Yet it is essential that we remember that Messiaen was completely sincere and unironic in this writing. It places a huge burden on the performers, who have to play with complete conviction if all parties are not to collapse in laughter. Paul Griffiths in his book Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time describes this second theme as “[moving] through ever splashier paroxysms of cheapened harmony” and it is to their credit that Oppens and Lowenthal pull this movement off triumphantly.

If the first movement is a composed crescendo, the last, Amen of the Consummation , is a more or less continuous fortissimo . It is a tour de force in this recording: Lowenthal hammers out the Creation theme in the middle register while Oppens manages seemingly superhuman feats in the extreme upper and lower registers simultaneously, peal upon peal of bells pouring out. And, not content with starting this movement seemingly flat-out, both players are able to summon even more energy for the final measures, which are awe-inspiring.

Turning to the fine performance by Katia and Marielle Labèque on Erato, still sounding very good, it is clearly a recording one could live with very happily (as one has). However, the newcomer has the edge in terms of sheer weight of sound. That fuller sound picture emphasizes the intensity of Oppens’ and Lowenthal’s reading, which really takes no hostages. When the sustain pedal is finally released to cut off the huge reverberation of the final chords of the work, one realizes that the attention has been held for 46 minutes through the sheer conviction of all (composer and players) concerned.

Rather than provide more Messiaen, Cedille has opted for Debussy’s two-piano work En Blanc et noir (In White and Black). The link here is that Debussy wrote this music in the France of the First World War. If you’ll look in vain for references to war in Messiaen’s music, here there are a number of allusions, more or less elliptical, to it. The middle of three movements, Lent, Sombre , opens very somberly, and Oppens’ and Lowenthal’s performance brings out all the subsequent mercurial, shadowy shifts of mood and harmony. Their reading of En Blanc et noir is warmer than some—entirely to the advantage of the music—entirely clear and recommendable.

Ursula Oppens turns in a performance of the Messiaen whose “speed, allure, and quality of sound” are impeccable while providing a large amount of “emotion and power” as well, while Jerome Lowenthal is no less compelling in his performance. It’s a shame that Cedille provides only 10 seconds to recover from Visions de l’Amen before the Debussy breaks in, but this is a trivial cavil, faced with such a commanding and excellent disc.

FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant

What a great idea to pair two major 20th-century French two-piano works, both composed in wartime. More importantly, Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal prove an inspired pair, pianistically speaking. Throughout Visions de l'Amen's seven movements the pianists navigate the composer's tricky rhythms and frequently thick textural hurdles with impressive ensemble exactitude, uninhibited dynamism, and cogent organization of melodic and decorative elements. One good example of this can be found in the third movement, Amen de l'Agonie de Jésus, where, in the Bien modéré section, the second piano's fortissimo tune is perfectly contoured against the first piano's chords in the same register (left-hand forte, right-hand mezzo-forte). Similarly, the duo's long-lined animation and textural diversity in the seventh movement prevents the music from sounding long-winded and from bogging down.

Oppens commands the first piano part's big chords and wide leaps with the utmost solidity, definition, and rhythmic focus, and always knows when to dominate and pull back. Lowenthal has all of the good tunes (as well as the bad ones; I still cannot get through the second piano's sickly sweet fourth-movement solo without wincing), and he relishes accents more than certain of his discographical competitors. He also allows himself freedom in solo passages when expressively appropriate, such as in his ever-so-slight yet heart-quickening accelerandos under certain crescendos in the second movement.

In contrast to the lean and streamlined profile characterizing the Kontarsky brothers' reference recording of Debussy's En blanc et noir, Oppens and Lowenthal opt for full and generous sonorities, even when playing quietly. Although they seemingly employ as little sustain pedal as possible, a mellifluous yet strong legato quality emerges from massive chords, rapid bass-register rumblings, and fleeting flourishes. Who said you can't be impressionistic and clear at the same time? Save for slightly congested climaxes, the full-bodied engineering is excellent. Lowenthal's superb, highly informative annotations add further value to this desirable release.

--Jed Distler,
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    • UPC/Barcode: 735131911924
    • Item Number: CDR119