Tag Archives: Messiaen

Breathtaking pianism: Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith

Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert programme companions: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square which combined Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Op 34b with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

Read my full review here

 

(picture credit Neda Navaee)

 

Exhilarating & Engrossing Messiaen by Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Milton Court

 

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus) surely ranks amongst the “greats” of the piano repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale, variety and pianistic challenges. It is one of the most ground-breaking works in 20th-century piano music, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. It combines richly-hued romanticism and the spare modernism that influenced Messiaen’s pupil, Pierre Boulez, and reveals many of Messiaen’s preoccupations and interests – birdsong, eastern rhythms and instruments, cosmology, religious iconography and his own deeply-held Catholic faith.

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard enjoys the special distinction of having known Messiaen personally, and he studied with Yvonne Loriod (who premiered the work in March 1945 and who became the composer’s second wife in 1961). Aimard has a long-standing and highly-respected relationship with Messiaen’s piano music and it remains a core part of his repertoire. He is also a champion of modern and contemporary piano repertoire, and as a result he brings to this music a special understanding of Messiaen’s unique approach to pitch, rhythm, sonority and attack.

Read my full review here

Prom 38: Foulds and Messiaen excite and uplift

John Foulds – Three Mantras

Olivier Messiaen – TurangalÎla-symphonie

BBC Philharmonic

Juanjo Mena, conductor

A guiding thread of Hindu philosophy ran through Prom 38 which brought together music by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century with one of its neglected non-comformists to create one of the most exciting and uplifting concerts I have attended for some time. Works by Olivier Messiaen and John Foulds combined in a programme of ecstasy and excitement. The piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie was Steven Osborne, acclaimed for his performances and recordings of Messiaen’s piano music. He was joined by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on the Ondes Martenot, a curious electronic keyboard instrument much used by Messiaen in his music.

Read my full review here

On Messiaen – and more: Meet the Artist……Cordelia Williams, pianist


British pianist Cordelia Williams is undertaking a special project in 2015 exploring Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant- Jésus’, arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th-century. In this interview she discusses the project and the particular attraction of the music.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I never really made a specific ‘decision’ to be a pianist – it has just always been what I am. Deciding not to pursue a career in music would be as ridiculous as deciding not to age! Having heard my mother teaching piano and harpsichord since I was born, I was impatient to start learning as soon as I could sit on the piano stool, and since then studying and playing music has always seemed completely natural to me.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life? 

Definitely my mother: she taught me for the first six years (age 3 – 9) and I’m sure my approach to music was set during that time. However, I’d also say the seven years I spent boarding at Chetham’s School of Music, because I started to learn then how to take charge of my own musical development. Finally, I think during the last couple of years the contentment I’ve felt in my life – growing older, an incredibly happy relationship and an adorable cat – has allowed me to really learn who I am as a musician and to find a greater honesty and confidence in my playing.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I suspect for me it has been finding the self-belief to deal with the knock-backs and disappointments of any performing career. My friends gently point out that I can (sometimes) be an overly emotional person, and chasing opportunities and career advancement does not come naturally to me. I have a constant battle between what needs to be done for my career and what I want to do as a person.

Musically, I would say recording my second CD (Schumann for SOMM, out in September 2015). It is such emotional challenging and complex music – I really had to struggle for a long time to feel that I knew what I wanted to say. And organising my ‘Messiaen 2015’ series has been an enormous learning curve; quite apart from learning the marathon Vingt Regards in the first place, there have been so many aspects to coordinate that I wasn’t expecting.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Performing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the RPO at the Barbican in December 2014: it was a really special performance and something magical happened between the orchestra, the conductor and myself. Getting a standing ovation for Rachmaninov 3: it’s such a scary and enormous work to perform that I was quite overwhelmed with the reaction (may have cried a bit). And my recording of Schubert’s Impromptus for SOMM (2013): it was a big thing for me to release my first CD and, thank goodness, I still like it!

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’ve always had an affinity with Beethoven’s 3rd, 4th and 5th concertos. Schubert’s C minor Sonata (D958) has been a special work for me, as has Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17. And perhaps also Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat – someone once remarked that my performance reminded him of Dinu Lipatti, which for me is the highest compliment.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

There’s always something that I’m desperate to learn, so I usually plan programmes around that, gradually introducing new repertoire so that I always have some new works and some more familiar. I try to make every concert a holistic listening experience for the audience: interesting, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding and complete.

Tell us more about your ‘Messiaen 2015’ project.  What was your motivation for organising this series of concerts and events focussing on Olivier Messiaen?

It was the music itself – the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is such a fascinating work that I wanted the chance to explore it further, make new discoveries and look at it in different lights. And I wanted to share all that with anyone who was interested. So the commissions, collaborations and events were developed in a very organic way.

What is the particular appeal of this composer’s music for you? 

I think he must have been a wonderfully interesting man, because his music is! He combines so many different musical layers, symbolism, theology, literary inspirations, images from paintings and ideas from all walks of life, to create music which is worked out in minute and precise detail but which sounds natural, passionate, reverent and overwhelming. All of existence and all of non-existence is within Messiaen’s music.

What are the challenges and pleasures of studying and performing his piano music?

It’s unbelievably complicated to memorise! It really took me ages to learn the Vingt Regards. But I’ve found that, because it’s so pattern-based, once it’s learnt it stays in quite well. On the other hand, I love how thought-provoking his titles and commentaries are: he has allowed me to contemplate new concepts and look at familiar scenes (e.g. the Nativity, the Annunciation) in a totally new way.

What have been the special pleasures and challenges of working with poet Michael Symmons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker on this project? 

I can’t think of any challenges! But it has been a real pleasure to discuss the music with them and to see their own individual responses take shape. I couldn’t even have imagined what they’d come up with – it has been a true example of the sum being greater than the parts.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I think either performing the Vingt Regards in 2013 in King’s Chapel, Cambridge, which was wonderfully atmospheric, or my debut recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011. I was stupidly nervous! But in the end, the performance I gave was a huge achievement for me, and lots of my family and friends turned out to support me. We all got drunk at Las Iguanas afterwards.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Goodness – I don’t feel qualified to answer this yet! Ask me again in 30 years.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having a lazy Sunday morning at home together with newspapers and coffee (perhaps, in the future, surrounded by children), a walk in the countryside and then cooking a big roast lunch for friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My friends and family and my health. And my engagement ring, not for what it’s worth, but for what it symbolises.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about life and unusually energetic.

Cordelia Williams’ ‘Messiaen 2015’ project, an exploration of the ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ in music, words and art, continues at various venues in London and beyond. The next event in the series is a Study Day at King’s College, London on Tuesday 28th April. The event is free, but registration is required to attend. This in-depth exploration of the Vingt Regards and their origins includes sessions on Messiaen’s historical and musical context, compositional style and theology. The day includes sessions with poet Michael Symons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker, an exhibition, poetry reading and a lunchtime concert by Cordelia Williams. Full details here http://www.messiaen2015.com/event/kings-college-london/

For further information about other events, please visit the dedicated Messiaen 2015 website

The ‘Messiaen 2015’ project was made possible by the generous support of the City Music Foundation.

Hearing her mother teach piano, Cordelia wanted to learn to play too, and began lessons at home as soon as she could climb onto the piano stool. She gave her first public piano recital to celebrate her eighth birthday. She spent seven years at Chethams School of Music in Manchester, studying with Bernard Roberts and Murray McLachlan. She went on to work with Hamish Milne in London, Joan Havill and Richard Goode, and is grateful to have received support from the Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, the Stanley Picker Trust, the City of London Corporation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the City Music Foundation.

Cordelia Williams’ full biography

Messiaen’s ecstatic visions: Peter Donohoe & Benjamin Frith at Institut Français

The piano music of Olivier Messiaen is not performed enough for my taste, partly because there aren’t that many pianists around who are willing to tackle it. One notable exception is British pianist Peter Donohoe, who studied with Messiaen’s second wife Yvonne Loriod, and who played the composer’s music to the composer himself during his studies in Paris in the 1970s.

The concert at London’s Institut Français, part of the three-day It’s All About Piano Festival, was originally to include the London première of La Fauvette Passerinette, a work fully sketched by Messiaen in 1961 which was discovered by Peter Hill, who worked with Messiaen between 1986 and 1991, and which Hill completed in 2012. Sadly, Peter Hill was unwell, and so the work was introduced by Elaine Gould from Faber Music and Peter Donohoe, who played brief, appetite-whetting extracts, and relayed some interesting and entertaining anecdotes of his studies with Monsieur and Madame Messiaen, and his experiences of performing Messiaen’s music. Benjamin Frith stepped in at the last minute to perform Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Peter Donohoe

Read my full review here

Making sense of Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) surely ranks amongst the “greats” of the piano repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s WTC and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extrordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extroardinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant part in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or pauses for hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawkings, trills and shrillings in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full. It was British pianist Steven Osborne who stepped up to the challenge of performing this amazing work in full as part of the Soutbank Centre’s International Piano Series and year-long Rest Is Noise festival.

It was after hearing Steven Osborne’s account of Messiaen’s Trois Petite Liturgies that the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, invited him to study the larger piano works. Since then, Osborne has performed the epic Vingt Regards in public several times, and has also produced a highly acclaimed recording of it. His performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29th May 2013 was revelatory, not just in his ability to physically hold all the elements of the work together for two hours, displaying total technical and pianistic command, but also in his articulate and insightful approach to the music. The hushed chords and repeated right-hand octaves of the first Regard were almost whispered, before a clear bell sounded across the hall. Such meditative pianissimos contrasted with glittering effects high in the upper registers, richly-hued Debussyan harmonies, and deep, sonorous bass rumblings redolent of the sombre spirituality of late Liszt. It was a performance imbued with virtuosity, yet never at the expense of the music, nor quality of sound, and Osborne’s physical gestures always had meaning, emphasising a particular effect or intensely-felt emotion. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. Sitting in the back row of the hall, the sense of an audience engaged in an extraordinary shared experience was palpable in the absorption with which we listened. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had hard, and savoured the fading sounds in the hall, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a sustained standing ovation.

Concert review: Quartet for the End of Time at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen in 1930

The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night’s chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

Read my full review here

Takemitsu’s musical landscape

Toru Takemitsu (source: Wikipedia)

“My music is like a garden – and I am the gardener”

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)

It was rather wonderful to wake to the sounds of the music of Toru Takemitsu on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning. An unexpected pleasure, as such music is usually reserved for the wilder shores of Radio 3.

Takemitsu was a composer, but he was also a writer on aesthetics and musical theory. His music is delicate and refined, as beautiful as Hokusai print or a carved jade netsuke. Largely self-taught, his music combines elements of Japanese and western philosophy with the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, using both western and traditional Japanese instruments, and the use of defined silences to create a unique and extraordinary soundworld.

Takemitsu admired Debussy and Messiaen, as is evident in his piano music, and was drawn to composers who were themselves deeply influenced by the musical and philosophical culture of Asia, including John Cage. After my very positive experience with Messiaen for my ATCL Diploma programme, and my love of the piano music of Debussy, the desire to explore the piano music of Takemitsu seemed a natural one.

Takemitsu composed his Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992 in memory of Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer who had a strong influence on Takemitsu. The work was composed for a concert “Hommage à Olivier Messiaen” at Les Semaines Musicales Internationales d’Orleans, France, and was premiered by Alain Neveux on 24 October 1992. The name of the work was probably inspired by a quotation from a novel by Kenzaburo Oe about the miraculous rain tree, whose tiny leaves store up moisture and continue to let fall raindrops long after the rain has ceased. The work is also a dreamy meditation on the flow of life, and was the last piano piece Takemitsu wrote (his first Rain Tree Sketch was written in 1982). It is in a clear ABA (ternary) form, with a rhythmic opening which is reprised, in shortened form, after the melodic middle section. Its tonal language is redolent of Debussy and Messiaen, with chords used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progressions, and, like its dedicatee, Takemitsu employs recurring motifs (such as an ascending three-note broken chord figure) and well-placed silences to create a carefully nuanced atmosphere and colouristic shadings. Directions such as “celestially light” and “joyful” contribute to the metaphysical nature of this work.

There are some written in pedal markings, and these should be adhered to as the composer directs. Elsewhere, use of the pedal is at the discretion of the pianist. I tend on the side of restraint and use half or one-third pedal to avoid obscuring the clarity of the chords and melodic figures. Regarding the bars of silence, these should sound expectant and anticipatory, rather than dead; using the pedal to allow sounds to “ring” will help achieve this.

The metronome markings in the piece are somewhat ambiguous. On the dedication page of the score, the duration is given at 5 minutes, but if one adheres to the metronome markings exactly, the piece comes in at around 3 minutes. I have opted for a calm moderato, a sense of the music moving forward, but without pressing ahead. In my Diploma programme, this piece comes between the Bach D minor concerto BWV 974 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511. The contrast is, to me, rather special, and I feel it works well.

While researching the programme notes on this piece for my Diploma, I came across an interesting piece of research in which the author discusses the suggestion of traditional Japanese instruments in this work, and other piano works by Takemitsu, specifically the Taiko drum (the low D pedal point at the opening of page 2), and the long zither koto and the short-necked lute biwa (the ascending arpeggio figure suggests the plucked sound of these instruments). The article contains many interesting thoughts about Takemitsu’s piano music, and is definitely worth exploring further.

As for performances of this work, when I heard Noriko Ogawa perform it at the Wigmore last autumn, I was struck by the incredible soundworld she managed to achieve, producing “droplets” of notes and really evoking the miraculous rain tree (my review here). The recording I have been using for reference in my study of this piece is by Ichiro Nodaira: I particularly like the relaxed tempo of the opening melody.

The pianist Paul Crossley has recorded Takemitsu’s complete piano music, sadly, now out of print, though available via some music streaming services and Spotify.

 

Further listening:

Rain Tree Sketch

Litany

Les yeux clos

Piano Pieces for Children: No. 2. Clouds

The first page of Rain Tree Sketch II (Schott Music)

Diploma programme

Going back over old territory here, but by chance I found a film I made when I was rehearsing for my ATCL Diploma recital last winter with my page turner (who also happens to be a very good friend of mine, and one of my piano students). I’ve edited it into a more watchable programme. The pieces are played in the order in which I performed them in the exam recital on 14th December 2011

 

Review: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Queen Elizabeth Hall

photo credit: A Newton

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard demonstrated Liszt’s far-reaching musical legacy in a spell-binding concert of intense concentration and illuminating pianism celebrating Liszt’s bicentenary and the release of Aimard’s new recording, The Liszt Project. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.