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Visions de l'Amen

'Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen' (CDA67366)
Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67366 
Movement 1: Amen de la création
Movement 2: Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l'anneau
Movement 3: Amen de l'agonie de Jésus
Movement 4: Amen du désir
Movement 5: Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux
Movement 6: Amen du jugement
Movement 7: Amen de la consommation

Visions de l'Amen
The Piano I part of Visions de l’Amen was written for the nineteen-year-old Yvonne Loriod. Her part shows us what first caused Messiaen to be dazzled by her playing: sparkling passagework, complex rhythmic canons, and cascades of chords. Loriod was in Messiaen’s first class at the Conservatoire, in June 1941, and the teacher-pupil relationship is clear in a quite different way in Visions de l’Amen: in the opening ‘Amen de la création’, the high-register chords of Piano I are given life by the recurring ‘creation’ theme rising from the depths of Piano II – Messiaen’s part – which controls the pacing of the music.

The middle section of No 5 (‘Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux’) is a rare instance of Piano I having the main thematic line: birdsong, accompanied by dancing rhythms on Piano II. A dance of a different kind occupies the centre of No 2 (the ‘Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau’), with the pianos working in tandem in an extraordinary depiction of orbiting planets. In the ‘Amen du désir’ (No 4), after a slow opening, there is a fast solo for Messiaen himself (Piano II); this is repeated, with brilliant interjections on Piano I.

The final ‘Amen de la consommation’ is a tour de force with Piano I (originally Loriod) storming the heavens with dazzling virtuosity. The music transforms the monumental ‘creation’ theme into a procession towards paradise and glory, decorated by joyous peals of bells.

The copying of Visions de l’Amen was done by mid-April, and Messiaen’s diary on 14 April noted in his diary to take ‘Amen’ to Mlle Loriod at her godmother’s house. Loriod’s godmother, Nelly Eminger-Sivade, did much to encourage her brilliant god-daughter, putting on recitals in her salon where the young Yvonne would play for guests: Honegger and Poulenc came to hear her play when she was eighteen, and she played works by Messiaen, Jolivet and others. Mme Sivade’s husband worked as an engineer for the Parisian water company and the couple lived in a handsome apartment, with a balcony, at 53 rue Blanche, on the west side of the street, a few hundred metres from the Trinité. The first rehearsal for Visions de l’Amen took place there on 16 April, after dinner. Messiaen then left Paris for a short break in the Aube: on 18 April 1943 he wrote to Tual from his aunt’s house at Fuligny:

You will find enclosed a list of 50 names and addresses. These are the people I would like you to invite to the Concert de la Pléiade on 10 May. I have only included those that are strictly necessary among the numerous pupils and friends who want to come to the first performance, and who have already spoken to me about it several times. Perhaps the hall is going to hold a larger audience than for the previous concerts as the layout is different. Since many of these people are friends of both of us, I hope you will be able to invite all of those on the list, and I thank you for doing that with all my heart.
I should also mention that my wife and son appear on the list – above all don’t forget them! It will also need to be remembered that the two pianists (Mlle Loriod and myself) and the two page turners (because we must have two page turners) will also require passes to get in. I thought of this because your front-of-house arrangements are draconian – and I congratulate you on that!
Forgive me for troubling you with these mundane questions! I gave my manuscript to Mlle Loriod five days ago (my own copy is just finished) and we have had a first rehearsal: she already plays magnificently!

The mention of ‘draconian’ front-of-house arrangements in this letter is the only reference in Messiaen’s correspondence with Tual to the controls which were necessary to ensure, presumably, that neither undesirable Germans nor known collaborators were admitted. The first performance was originally scheduled to form part of the third Concert de la Pléiade, at the Galerie Charpentier on 3 May 1943, but a small printed invitation (which managed to misspell both Messiaen as ‘Messian’ and Loriod as ‘Loriot’), announced the decision to perform the work on its own a week later, on 10 May at 5 p.m.

A private run-through took place at Mme Sivade’s the day before, on Sunday 9 May, as Messiaen noted in his diary: ‘14h. rehearsal at Mme Sivade. Those present were Mme Tual, Gallimard, Poulenc, Jolivet, Samazeuilh, Honegger, Mme Messiaen.’ Yvonne Loriod recalled that after this rehearsal, Messiaen took the guests down the rue Blanche to attend Vespers at the Trinité.

The premiere was attended by some distinguished figures in French cultural life: photographs show Marie-Blanche de Polignac, Christian Dior and Francis Poulenc among the audience; others present included Paul Valéry, François Mauriac and Jean Cocteau. The page turners were Serge Nigg and René Hanicot (not Pierre Boulez as Tual claimed – he first encountered Messiaen in 1944). Such was the lustre of the audiences at these concerts that they were written about not only as musical events, but as social occasions enlivening an otherwise sombre time, as can be seen from Marcelle Auclair’s column in Marie-Claire:

It is thrilling to comment on the Concerts de la Pléiade which take place at the Galerie Charpentier. During this time when we get butter from the butcher, meat from the hairdresser and sugar from the shoe repairer, these fashionable concerts take place in an art gallery. It is only possible to go to them by invitation and, of course, it’s a personal affront not to be invited! Madame Colette arrives on her bicycle, in her sports outfit, wearing sandals and a boater. She has cycled from the Palais Royal because it’s all on the flat, she confided to us.

In the eleven Concerts de la Pléiade given during the Occupation, premieres included not only Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen but also Poulenc’s Violin Sonata and Chansons villageoises, and Jolivet’s Poèmes intimes; there were also performances of Stravinsky and early French music (notably Rameau’s Platée). Arthur Honegger was among those at the premiere of Visions de l’Amen and his review appeared in Comoedia on 15 May 1943:

The glamorous ladies wearing hats like table-tops or multicoloured tennis racquets who provide the visual ornament at the Concerts de la Pléiade must have been rather surprised. The charming ear-ticklers of recent programmes were unexpectedly replaced by a work which is long, highly individual, and densely written, eschewing the variety of orchestral timbres by restraining itself to the black and white of two pianos. And what a serious subject: ‘Visions de l’Amen’, seven large musical frescoes with a duration of almost an hour. Nevertheless, the experience was a perfect success. I must say straight away that this work by Olivier Messiaen seems to me a remarkable one, of great musical richness and of true grandeur in its conception.
Perhaps I might discuss some details. First, the fact that it is written for two pianos lends a certain austerity. In the first piece, the same chords (augmented fourths and perfect fourths) are used with a little too much persistence. There is a certain difficulty in discerning the principal musical lines resulting from the absence of different timbres. But what does this matter given the poetic power, the constantly exalted level of the musical discourse, and the quality of the musical invention which is affirmed so impressively? The rules which the composer has invented and imposed upon himself with rigorous discipline give to the whole work a noble style with no hint of dryness.
My personal preference is above all for the ‘Amen de l’agonie de Jésus’ and the ‘Amen du désir’. In the first there is an anguished theme which turns at length on the same three notes (C sharp, D, E flat) and is of extraordinary expressive intensity. In the second, a calm theme of exquisite tenderness is set, in variations, against a second motif, with a syncopated rhythm, which is ardent and passionate […] The composer himself performed the work with Mademoiselle Yvonne Loriod as his partner. Given the technical difficulty of the score I can hardly begin to do justice to the extraordinary command of this young arist, but I do so in all sincerity.
One personal wish. I would like this work to be heard, preceded by its commentaries, at the Jeunesses musicales. That would be infinitely more interesting and useful than the parade of works which is usually served up there. In this work there is something for the young to discuss and to admire.

Following the concert, Messiaen wrote to Denise Tual, thanking her not only for arranging the concert, but also for ‘the opportunity to write a long and serious piece’.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2004

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Details for CDA67366 track 3
Amen de l'agonie de Jésus
Recording date
12 September 2003
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen (CDA67366)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: October 2004
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