Review: Focus on Messiaen: Between Heaven & the Clouds Day #2 @ RWCMD

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Focus on Messiaen: Between Heaven & the Clouds Day #2
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama
Thursday 17th November 2016

The second day of the mini-Messiaen festival at the Royal Welsh would focus purely on his writings for piano. An impressive player himself, Messiaen would later teach and fall in love with his student Yvonne Loriod. After the death of his first wife Claire Delbos, Messiaen would go on to marry Yvonne. Though she was a great violinist, Yvonne was an outstanding pianist, who Messiaen recognised and would go on to write all his future piano work for.

Peter Hill was taught by Messiaen himself and is a living testament to how exactly the composer would play his work (Loriod passed away a few years ago). This afternoon concert would have an unrelenting focus on the birds Messiaen loved so much and his near three hour long Catalogue d’oiseaux prove this (we would hear a few highlights). This colourful and demanding collection was first performed by Loriod in a concert with only one interval. They depict a variety of species of birds and a marker as to where Messiaen went on his travels.

In a pre show talk, Hill spoke of his time spent with Messiaen and in last few years, being allowed access to the large archive of all his writing. It has been well known that Messiaen did not write any music in the year 1961. Hill’s discovery of a piece from that era blasted this fact out of the water and proves he may have considered a second part of his Catalogue of Birds.

He also excited this Messiaen lover by saying there is still another work to premiere, dating all the way from the 1930s. His only liturgical piece, a Mass written for the perplexing mix of female voices and six violins. One hopes this gets a premiere in the Welsh capital very soon.

La Colombe (the Dove) is an early account of birds, taken from his Preludes (Messiaen first published work). It is not calls but rather a wonderfully fluttery passage for piano, played exquisitely by Hill. This is by far the most accessible music of the whole concert.

La Fauvette Passerinette (or the Sub-alpine Warbler) is Hill’s discovery and it’s as heavy going as most of the Catalogue and hints at more additions to his hefty collection of bird calls. L’Alouette lulu (the Woodlark) was an evocative ending of the concert, with the composer’s sensual account of a return trip from the Mediterranean back to Paris: “a magnificent panorama of mountains, misty smoky clouds rising from the valley and wreathing fir trees”. It’s night time and here the time of day is expressed in an atonal structure (as he always thought of night time music) and the Woodlark sings in light and clarity. We were also treated to a Sight Reading Exercise (heard above with The Dove) which Messiaen wrote in the hundreds, but sadly only this lovely little piece remains. He would make a living out of teaching sight reading in the 1930s and the lose of this extensive series of exercises is a huge blow to Messiaen-ites everywhere.

It’s a vivid slice of the catalogue and proves Messiaen talent in painting landscapes and moods, as well as his curious take on bird song. He even stated: “let there be no mistake! The birds alone are the great artists. It is they who are the real composers of these pieces!”

The evening concert with Cordella Williams was the focal point of the whole festival, with her playing Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Appearing to be the least attended concert, it sadly seemed most people weren’t to0 keen on a feature length work of piano music. These 20 gazes on the baby Jesus, are a monumental 2 hours of piano. Religious music was never so surprising, as is every other time Messiaen is let loose in his Christian compositions. The night was especially poignant as Williams is with child herself…just imagine listening to Messiaen in the womb!

On hearing an audience member declare Messiaen as “samey”, I scoffed at the idea, though could understand to an exact where he was coming from. His music is never a gimmick, even if it appears like improvisations that a manic toddler may express on the keys. The rich musical language is unique to him and can be an acquired taste, which can only come in time and in attending the music itself.

Vingt Regards is for those that know they like him and can bare two hours of piano. Williams, is impressive having played several of the movements from memory and her control over the piece is an addition to her staggering musicianship. The hammering of the low notes, the massaging of the high notes and the manic rounds played all over make audience members eyes bulge in disbelief at what we are hearing. Nothing is ever compromised with Messiaen: you hear the work, which would have most likely derived from small-er beginnings. The final project is usually mammoth.

Last year, Williams toured this piece around the UK with writing inspired by the music. This was a fantastic opportunity to get to know the piece and the influence it’s had. For those bold enough to venture to hear the whole work, you may find yourself staring into nothingness (in a good way!), or relishing the exceptional musical experience this can be.

The unexpected violence of the work is mirrored with wonderfully disjointed, jazzy like qualities heard in other parts. Themes and  motives circulate the piece and maintain focal points within. The 10th movement is a highlight for me, Regard to the spirit of joy: a frantic dance of Indian rhythms, strident harmonies and it’s conclusion a great part to take a well earned break from (the intermission followed).

Transcendent & tearful music.


Peter Hill: 3 stars
Cordelia Williams:  5 stars



Review: Focus on Messiaen: Between Heaven & the Clouds – Day #1 @ RWCMD

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