Could there be a better placed ensemble to perform Des canyons aux étoiles …? Commissioned for the bi-centenary of the US Declaration of Independence, Messiaen’s monumental masterpiece was inspired by neither Washington nor New York nor political history, but the national parks of southern Utah. The birdsong and vividly hued landscape of the region prompted a euphoric 12-movement celebration of nature and his faith. On paper, the piece should not work, for Messiaen pits vast wind and percussion sections against just 13 strings. Even stranger is the inclusion of solo movements, two for piano, one for horn. And yet, teeming with invention, this strange assemblage not only hangs together, but transfixes and overwhelms.
Appropriately, the sessions for this vibrant new recording by the Utah Symphony were punctuated by an extraordinary outdoor performance amidst the canyons and stars, a long-held ambition of outgoing music director Thierry Fischer. From the sparse skittering and chittering of the opening depiction of the desert to the kookily verdant Eden of the concluding ‘Zion Park et la cité céleste’, the orchestra sparkles with colour. A touch more heft and grandeur would occasionally be welcome at climaxes, while the otherwise thoroughly compelling horn soloist Stefan Dohr could find more space in the remarkable ‘Appel interstellaire’. These are relatively minor caveats, and pianist Jason Hardink is outstanding. His long association with Messiaen’s music is brought to bear with incisive virtuosity allied to living in the transcendent moment and a sense of joy that extends to the whole ensemble.