Hyperion Records

Quatre Études de rythme

'Messiaen: Piano Music' (CDA67054)
Messiaen: Piano Music
No 1: Île de feu 1
No 4: Île fe feu 2

Quatre Études de rythme
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.

from notes by Angela Hewitt © 1998

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