This week I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new project celebrating the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, in particular his monumental and extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). The event was held at the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Vernon Ellis, committed and active patrons of music and the arts. I was there as a guest of the pianist and director of the project, Cordelia Williams.

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s music has a special appeal and fascination for many musicians, musicologists, scholars and listeners. He composed the Vingt Regards in 1944 when Paris was still under Nazi occupation, yet his music is suffused with love, wonder, awe, joy, colour, quiet contemplation, passion and, above all, faith.  Messiaen drew inspiration from many sources (including many non-musical sources): colour, paintings by Durer, Michelangelo and the Surrealist artist de Chirico, birdsong, religious tracts, Buddhist philosophy, physics and the ancient rhythms of Hindu and Greek music and poetry. Yet, despite these complex and often profound inspirations, his music is accessible, full of variety and often incredibly beautiful and sensitive.

Between Heaven and the Clouds is a special collaboration between pianist Cordelia Williams, artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Three of Sophie’s paintings made in response to the three movements of the Vingt Regards which Cordelia performed, were on display on the stage around the piano, and the artist introduced the paintings, explaining her personal responses to the music. Michael Symmons Roberts introduced his poetry and talked about the extraordinary effect hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had had on him. His poems are a response to the music but also explore ideas of the birth of an exceptional infant in a city under occupation.

In the short concert, Cordelia performed three movements from the Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – and Michael Symmons Roberts read his poems which related to these movements. Cordelia’s playing displayed a deep affinity for the music – at once vibrant and sensitive, subtly nuanced to highlight the rich harmonic palette which Messiaen uses to highlight particular colours and timbres in chords. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie was an energetic expression of joy, with distinct hints of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Cordelia Williams

‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015’ is not just a series of concerts. As Cordelia explained in her introduction, the music will be explored through performances, art and poetry, as well as through talks, a study day and other events “to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics”. The project will explore Messiaen’s compositional style, his historical and musical contexts, and his rich variety of inspiration. For those who love Messiaen’s music, this will be a rare treat. And for those who have yet to discover his music, it will be a wonderful introduction.

More about the project here

Cordelia Williams will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Making Sense of Messiaen – an earlier blog post on the Vingt Regards

Acclaimed French pianist Pascal Rogé gave a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall on Monday featuring works by three towering figures of French piano music – Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. The hour-long concert afforded the audience a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the most wondrous pianism, from the graceful, subtly nuanced soundworld of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque to Ravel’s glittering Sonatine and closing with Poulenc’s vivid and characterful Les soirées de Nazelles.

Parisian-born Rogé has a deep affinity with these composers, with countless celebrated performances and an impressive discography. I have enjoyed Rogé’s pianism on disc and have for a long time wanted to hear him live.

Debussy’s Suite bergamasque was written in 1890 and owes much to the poet Paul Verlaine and his Fêtes galantes.Verlaine in turn was inspired by the painter Watteau, whose works evoked the elegant and frivolous pleasures of eighteenth-century French society, and his poems – and Debussy’s Suite – also draw inspiration from the Italian Comedia del’arte.

Debussy’s writing is subtle and elusive in rhythm and harmony, with an undercurrent of sadness and poignancy which runs through the four movements. Roge’s lucid playing highlighted many of the details, layers and nuances in the music which other performers may overlook, too keen to emphasise the “impressionistic” nature of Debussy’s writing (a term which the composer himself despised). There was vibrancy too, in the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Passepied’, emphasised by sensitive pedalling and a clear sense of line. No muddy soundwashes here, ‘Clair de Lune’ seemed to float, suspended and shimmering, yet with a gorgeous clarity too.

When Ravel composed his Sonatine he had already completed Jeux d’Eau, an inspired addition to the impressionist repertoire of the piano, and it seemed unlikely he would turn back to a classical antecedent. However, he was tempted by a competition for the first movement of a sonatina: as it turned out, he was the only entrant. The delicate figurations, which act as an accompaniment (together with the bass line) in the first movement, clearly show the influence of the “running water” arpeggiated figures of Jeux d’Eau.

As in the Debussy, so in Ravel Rogé displayed remarkable precision combined with sensitivity in touch, articulation, tonal shading, phrasing and voicing, all coupled with an astonishing control of the piano which results in the most delicious, sparkling palette of sounds and colours. His magical sense of timing and spare rubato in the opening movement was, for me, one of the most wondrous moments in the entire recital.

In contrast to the intricate traceries of Ravel and Debussy’s kaleidoscopic soundworld, Poulenc’s Les Soirées des Nazelles was bold and spirited, full of improvisatory passages and rapid shifts of mood, dynamic and tempo. Rogé gave a rich and full-blooded performance, which really brought the virtuosic nature of this suite to life.

Satie’s rarely heard Gnossienne No. 5 was the encore – voluptuous in tone, simple and tasteful, a delight!

 

Meet the Artist……Pascal Rogé

(picture credit: Mary Robert)

 

Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than twenty years old at the time, and the influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen is obvious in these piano miniatures. Like Debussy, Messiaen gave each Prelude a title, suggesting a narrative for the work. Some are obvious, such as ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), a piece with delicate flutterings and cooings high in the register, or ‘Un reflet dans le vent…’ (‘A Reflection in the Wind…’), with its stormy gusts and eddies, while others have more esoteric titles: ‘Les sons impalpables de rêve…’ (‘The Intangible Sounds of the Dream’) and ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell’).

The Debussyan influence is clear in the use of unresolved or ambiguous veiled and misty harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano works, Visions de l’Amen (for 2 pianos) and Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus.

Messiaen described his Preludes as  “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings”. Sadness, loss, and meditations on mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light (physical and metaphorical) as well, as there always is in Messiaen’s music, and they contain many of the features which are so distinctive of Messiaen’s later works: a masking of literal definitions, shimmering sounds, colours, light, “flashes”, and already suggest the vastness of Messiaen’s spiritual and musical landscape, a landscape which makes the Vingt regards such extraordinary pieces to play and to hear. As Alex Ross says of Messiaen’s music in his book The Rest is Noise, it is “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” One has the sense, always, when playing or listening to Messiaen of something that is far, far greater than us.

Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia, and the piano and pianissimo measures in Messiaen’s music can be very effective if played with a slight stridency and brightness of tone (this is a very ‘French’ style of piano playing, and if you listen to Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, playing his music, you can hear that sparkling clarity). And Messiaen, like Debussy before him, capitalised on the piano’s sonorous potential, for example, in the inclusion of deliberately “wrong” notes (to be played more softly that the rest of the material), which create the illusion of the natural sympathetic harmonics set up by the release of the sustaining pedal.

Here is Yvonne Loriod in the second of Messiaen’s Preludes:

Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen : 8 Préludes : II Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste

And here is French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who went to study with Messiaen at the age of 12:

from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’