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Hyperion Records

CDA67054 - Messiaen: Piano Music

Recording details: January 1998
Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: May 1998
Total duration: 75 minutes 32 seconds

'Playing of the highest polish. Fastidiously balanced chords, every detail clear and clean. Rarely, if ever, can Messiaen's piano music have been played with such refinement' (Classic CD)

'Very fine' (Gramophone)

'Hewitt's combined precision and firepower can hold their own in any company' (Classic FM)

'A revelation' (The Scotsman)

'You don't have to believe in paradise to know for a fact that Messiaen's Eight Preludes are the kind of music one would hear there. To put it simply, you will adore these pieces if you like Debussy' (American Record Guide)

Piano Music
La colombe  [2'22]
Le nombre léger  [2'06]
Plainte calme  [2'55]
Île de feu 1  [2'29]
Île fe feu 2  [4'41]

Angela Hewitt writes …
The music of Olivier Messiaen immediately attracts our attention with its rhythm, variety of colour, technical brilliance, energy, joy, and spirituality. It is incredibly well written for the instrument, even though its difficulties may deter many a player. Audiences are rarely indifferent to it, and for many it has a very powerful effect.

The Préludes were written when Messiaen was about 20 and are remarkable pieces for one so young. They were premiered in 1931. The two 'Islands of Fire' are from his Quatre Études de rythme from 1950 and are dedicated to Papua New Guinea. Messiaen states that his themes are characterized 'by the violence of the magic rites of that country'. He wrote Vingt Regards ('Twenty Contemplations of the Child Jesus') for his wife Yvonne Loriod. In it he uses the piano like an orchestra, demanding a huge range of dynamics, attacks, and timbres.

For this recording my wish was not only to present my favourite works by Messiaen, but also to give the listener an idea of the development of his writing—all on a single disc.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The music of Olivier Messiaen immediately attracts our attention with its rhythm, variety of colour, technical brilliance, energy, joy, and spirituality. For the pianist, it is a part of the twentieth-century repertoire that cannot be ignored—the understanding of which is certainly helped by a thorough grounding in French music, especially that of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. It is incredibly well written for the instrument, even though its difficulties may deter many a player. Audiences are rarely indifferent to it, and for many it has a very powerful effect.

Olivier Eugène Prosper Charles Messiaen was born in Avignon on 10 December 1908. His father, Pierre, taught English (a language his son never mastered) and was noted for his translations of Shakespeare. His mother, Cécile Sauvage, was a poetess who greatly influenced her son by bringing him up in a world enhanced by poetry and fairy-tales. Although she died before Messiaen’s musical career began, she had the intuition, even before his birth, that he would be artistic (she also seemed to be sure it was a boy!). Her series of poems, L’âme en bourgeon (‘The Budding Soul’), written while she was carrying her baby, spoke of ‘an unknown, distant music’ and predicted his love of birds and the Orient. At the outbreak of World War?I his father joined the army and the rest of the family moved to Grenoble. The mountains of the Dauphiné, where he now lies at rest, made a profound impression on him and he returned there throughout his life to compose some of his most important works. Between the ages of eight and ten Olivier enjoyed performing the complete Shakespeare plays for an audience of one (his younger brother, Alain), and built a toy theatre, using coloured pastry wrappings to reflect light. His favourite plays were those with a touch of the supernatural (The Tempest, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). By this time he was teaching himself the piano and composed a short composition on Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, a piece he later described as being ‘not entirely stupid’. In 1917 he had his first piano lessons and the following year, when his father returned home, the family moved to Nantes. His precocious talent led him to request opera scores of Mozart, Gluck, Berlioz and Wagner as Christmas presents from the age of seven, which he would sight-read at the piano, singing every part. For his tenth birthday his piano teacher gave him Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande which he said was ‘like a bomb in the hands of a child’. It was to remain his most decisive musical influence.

Although his parents were not particularly religious, Messiaen was attracted to the Catholic faith from his early years. Its mysteries no doubt captivated such an imaginative child, and he was never anything but a believer. The expression of his faith soon became his sole reason to compose, and the one aspect of his work that he said he would not regret at the hour of his death.

In 1919 the family moved once more—this time to Paris. Messiaen entered the Conservatoire and remained there as a student for the next eleven years, winning prizes in harmony, counterpoint, piano accompaniment, history of music, organ (in the class of Marcel Dupré) and composition (with Paul Dukas). It was while studying with the latter that he wrote his eight Préludes (1928/9), which are remarkable pieces for one so young. It would be easy to dismiss them as being too influenced by Debussy’s works of the same name (the most obvious similarity being the poetic titles), but they are already stamped with Messiaen’s unique sense of tone colour and harmony. When Messiaen heard or even just read music, he inwardly saw certain colours shifting with the music and he used different sonorities to depict these colours, juxtaposing them or placing them against each other. These sonorities were based on ‘modes of limited transposition’—groups of notes arranged differently from the traditional diatonic scale that, after a few transpositions, return to the same notes. Each one had its own colour or blend of colours. These discs of colour produce dazzling effects in all of his music (the composer speaks of ‘interweaving rainbows’), and it comes as no surprise to read of the lasting impression the stained-glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle had on him as a child. His favourite painter, Robert Delaunay, also believed that colour determined form and emotional content.

The first piece in the set, ‘La colombe’ (‘The dove’), uses mode 2 whose colours are orange and violet (and centered around E major). It is marked ‘slow, expressive, with a very soft (‘enveloppée’) sonority’. The melody presented in octaves is surrounded by shimmering chords above and a steady pulse below. It is a simple binary sentence with a most beautiful ending. A short fragment of the melody (with a ‘wrong note’ effect of not quite being an octave apart!) is played above a sustained chord, making full use of the resonances of the piano. These added resonances, which are in fact written-out harmonics, appear throughout his music, uniting harmony and timbre.

‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ (‘Song of ecstasy in a sad landscape’) presents its initial theme four times, augmenting and then diminishing the number of parts. The bleak atmosphere of the outer sections (grey, mauve, Prussian blue) is contrasted with the ecstatic song in the middle (silvery, diamond-like). Here Messiaen inserts a canon, a device he uses no fewer than five times in the preludes, and with which he first experimented as a boy. The third prelude, ‘Le nombre léger’ (‘The light number’), reaches its brilliant ending by leading a canon at the unison to another resonant close, again centered around E major. It is a study in agility and lightness of touch. ‘Instants défunts’ (‘Defunct moments’) is marked ‘slow, moved, with a gentle and distant sonority’, and combines velvet grey with reflections of mauve and green. Few composers can achieve such a wonderful feeling of stillness as Messiaen does in the final bars. This is one of his unique traits, and comes from his desire to express the Eternal. Unlike traditional Western music, there is often no development in Messiaen’s music, but rather repetition and juxtaposition of blocks of music, achieving a static quality. Here time stands still and gives us ample chance for contemplation.

The next two preludes were Messiaen’s favourites in later life, although he regarded the whole set with affection and tenderness. The chord clusters that open ‘Les sons impalpables du rêve …’ (‘The impalpable sounds of the dream …’) foreshadow things to come in the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and are already one hundred per cent Messiaen. These chords in mode 3 are combined with a chordal theme in the left hand using mode 2, the top voice of which is to have the timbre of a brass instrument. The middle section is taken over by a rather plaintive canon in contrary motion. It ends with another astonishing resonance preceded by a glissando, using the extremes of the keyboard. The sixth prelude, ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of anguish and tears of farewell’) is the longest of the set and the most challenging to decipher with its profusion of accidentals and chord clusters. We immediately think of Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet’ from Gaspard de la Nuit (one of Messiaen’s favourite pieces of music) with its tolling bell and smell of death, but whereas Ravel’s piece stays in sombre mood, Messiaen builds to a climax of great intensity. Suddenly the colour changes and we are bathed in light. These ‘tears of farewell’ centre around the key of B major which in Messiaen’s language denotes spiritual fulfilment. The final adieu of three single notes (B, E sharp, B) is immensely moving.

‘Plainte calme’ (‘Calm lamentation’) returns to the colours of the fourth prelude and is a simple, yearning song. By now we are ready for some virtuoso playing, and we get just that in the last prelude, ‘Un reflet dans le vent …’ (‘A reflection in the wind …’). Again we hear traces of Ravel in the stormy outer sections, most notably from some of the more chromatic passages in Scarbo. The melodic second theme is enveloped in what Messiaen calls ‘sinuous arpeggios’, suggesting the sound of the wind. In the middle we reach a triumphant and brilliant climax which is full of joy. After a recapitulation of the opening, the work ends with a dramatic flourish.

The Préludes were premiered in 1931 at the Société Nationale by the work’s dedicatee, Henriette Roget, a fellow student at the Conservatoire.

In the years between his departure from the Conservatoire (1930) and the composition of Île de Feu 1 and 2 (1950), Messiaen’s music was completely transformed. He incorporated Hindu and Greek rhythms into his music and began his lifelong work of notating birdsong, which he considered the greatest music on earth. Rhythm to Messiaen was the most essential element of music, and his idea of rhythmic music was one inspired by nature and using unequal note-values rather than repetition and squareness (thus for him Bach or indeed a military march had no rhythm). The two Île de Feu (‘Island of Fire’) pieces are from his Quatre Études de rythme (‘Four Rhythmic Studies’). They are both dedicated to Papua New Guinea and Messiaen states that his themes are characterized ‘by the violence of the magic rites of this country’. Certainly the pianist now needs to cultivate a percussive attack rather than a palette of shimmering colours! In both pieces we have a refrain which is hammered out at the start. In Île de Feu 1, the second appearance of the theme already has birdsong above it. The third time uses added resonances, and the fourth is enhanced with percussive effects. Fragments of it appear in the bass of the final section where the right hand starts a wild dance. It seems quite appropriate to use one’s fist for the cluster of notes before the final flourish! If Île de Feu 1 seems demanding, it is still nothing in comparison to Île de Feu 2. In 1951 Messiaen recorded the four études for Columbia on two 78s. After playing Île de Feu 2 eighteen times in a row, he had cramp that lasted several weeks! It is indeed very tiring to play, and can be baffling for the listener, even though its excitement and virtuosity are impressive. The opening refrain, marked ‘fast and ferocious’, has the theme in the left hand with the resulting harmonics played at a lower dynamic level by the right hand. The episodes in between appearances of the refrain may sound like total disorder but are actually highly organized mechanical procedures. A series of 12 durations, 12 sounds, 4 attacks, and 5 intensities is permutated using a scheme of 10 interversions. The last set of interversions coincides with the last appearance of the refrain. To finish off the piece, Messiaen writes a brilliant moto perpetuo in the lower part of the keyboard, with the right hand, marked forte, frenetically dancing to Hindu rhythms, and the left hand, marked piano, making patterns of twelve-note groups that contract and expand. It is a supreme test for the performer’s ability and clarity of thought.

In 1940 Messiaen was taken prisoner-of-war and interned in Görlitz, Silesia. It was there that he wrote and performed his famous Quartet for the End of Time. Upon his release in 1941 he was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. His classes in analysis and composition were a Mecca for students from all over the world, and they included such names as Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis. Another was the French pianist, Yvonne Loriod, who was gifted with a prodigious technique and memory that knew no bounds. From then on, Messiaen wrote his piano works with her in mind and she premiered his monumental cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (‘Twenty Contemplations of the Child Jesus’) on 26 March 1945. (They were married in 1962 after the death of Messiaen’s first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos.) The cycle of twenty pieces, which takes over two hours to perform, was written in 1944 in just under six months. It is Messiaen’s greatest work for piano and one of the most challenging in all the keyboard repertoire. Of it he wrote: ‘More than in all my preceding works, I have sought a language of mystic love; at once varied, powerful, and tender, sometimes brutal, in a multi-coloured ordering.’ He uses the piano like an orchestra, demanding a huge range of dynamics, attacks, and timbres. Messiaen was extremely explicit with his markings, and absolute clarity is necessary for his music to be fully understood.

The title ‘Regard’ has been translated in many different ways: among those I have come across are the words ‘look’, ‘adoration’, ‘contemplation’, ‘regard’ and ‘watch’. In all a state of reverence is implied. For this recording my wish was not only to present my favourite works by Messiaen, but also to give the listener an idea of the development of his writing—all on a single disc. Thus, a complete performance of the Vingt Regards was not possible. A good place to start is with the fourth piece, ‘Regard de la Vierge’ (‘Contemplation of the Virgin’). The opening, whose rhythm is based on two alternating Greek metres, is marked ‘tender and naive’, and it is not hard to imagine the Virgin rocking her Child. The purity expressed here is contrasted with the stronger, more orchestral episodes, where in two instances a xylophone effect is followed by the twittering of a bird. In the second half of the piece, an extra voice is added on top of the naive theme which Messiaen said expressed the ‘tenderness of the maternal gaze’.

‘Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’ (‘The Kiss of the Child Jesus’) is the fifteenth piece in the cycle, and the major slow movement. Even people who profess not to like or understand Messiaen cannot fail to be moved by this piece of outstanding beauty and rapture. It begins with the ‘Theme of God’, one of four themes that recur throughout the whole cycle, treated as a berceuse and denoting the Child Jesus sleeping within us at each Communion. Little by little the music becomes more ornamented (some of the garlands remind us of Chopin, a composer Messiaen admired) and, after a very Ravelian flourish, the gates to the garden are opened. The music becomes increasingly exciting (using another of the cyclic themes, the ‘Theme of Chords’ and imitating carillon bells). The section marked ‘Almost fast, with passion’ is with ‘arms held out towards love’. It builds up to an almost unbearable intensity, leading us to ‘the kiss’. Messiaen said he was reminded of a picture of the ‘Christ-child leaving his mother’s arms to embrace Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux’. This section is marked ‘with love’—for Messiaen synonymous with joy – and is truly ecstatic. To finish, we have the ‘shadow of the kiss’, another Chopinesque passage with the ‘Theme of God’ as accompaniment. The work ends with the same calm with which it began.

In the ‘Regard de l’Esprit de Joie’ (‘Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy’) Messiaen dazzles us with the brilliance of his writing. It is good to know that contemplation of the divine can also be noisy and vigorous! Here Messiaen is expressing the joy Jesus had throughout his time on earth through his knowledge of eternal life. We do not need to share his faith to feel such joy—surely it is within us all. This tenth piece in the cycle begins with a vehement dance in the lower part of the keyboard, constantly interrupted by a violent contrary-motion figure. It combines oriental rhythms with plainchant—in Messiaen’s opinion the only true religious music because of its complete lack of external effects. Soon the ascending ‘Theme of Joy’ is introduced for the first time in the midst of some enthralling virtuosity. A bridge passage uses two ‘asymmetrical augmentations’ where the notes rise and fall chromatically at each repetition, with only the E remaining in place. This E leads us emphatically into the first of three variations on a hunting theme intoxicated with joy (the E is the dominant of A major where we now find ourselves). Each variation gains in strength and vehemence (we proceed from A major into D flat and then F major). Volleys of chords testify to the brilliance and ease of Loriod’s technique. The ‘Theme of Joy’ then appears again with a carillon of high bells. A return of the ‘Theme of God’, now totally transformed from how we heard it in ‘Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’, gives us another passage of fireworks. The music suddenly stops, and builds up from a pianissimo subito using the first four notes of the ‘Theme of Joy’ harmonized by the ‘Theme of Chords’. We now have a recapitulation of the very opening of the piece but, instead of unison octaves in the bass, we have the right hand in fourths at the very top of the keyboard and the left dancing about at the very bottom. Messiaen was one of the first composers to use the extremes of the piano in such a way (he also said he thought his sense of pitch was unusually acute in these registers, as it certainly must have been!). The last appearance of the ‘Theme of Joy’ says we have arrived. A brief passage of bird­song, a few more hunting-horns, and we are thrust head­long into the final whack of the bass drum!

Olivier Messiaen died on 28 April 1992 at the age of eighty-three. I will never forget hearing the posthumous performance of his last work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà (‘Bright Glimpses of the Beyond’) in London soon after that. Although he was not there to acknowledge the tumultuous applause that followed the extended, rapt silence, he was certainly there with us in spirit. His music, like that of any truly great composer, is recognizable after only a few bars—so unique is his language, and so uplifting its effect. Its wide appeal is perhaps explained by something the composer himself said:

Real music, beautiful music—you can listen to it without understanding it; you don’t need to have studied harmony or orchestration. You must feel it.

Angela Hewitt © 1998

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