Monday, 21 March 2011

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 3

This is the third and penultimate release with Olivier Messiaen playing his own works for now. The last works missing is his “Messe de la Pentecôte” and his “Livre d’Orgue”. Oliver Messiaen also recorded the “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité”, but since it was composed in 1969 it was from obvious reasons not included in the 1956 recording sessions. He recorded the “Méditations” in 1972, but we’ll have to wait until 2022 for a public domain release of that.

I’ve already covered many sides of the circumstances connected with these recordings, so I’ll again let Timothy Tikker speak. This time it's concerning the interpretations by Olivier Messiaen, and also draw attention to his excellent article from The American Organist (Nov 2008):

“Identifying Messiaen as a romantic performer may seem surprising, when so many think of him as the ultra-modernist who, for example, did so much to introduce total serialism in composition. And yet, he admitted plainly: "I'm not ashamed of being a romantic. The romantics were magnificent craftsmen . . . The romantics were aware of the beauties of nature, of the grandeur of divinity; they were grandiose, and many of our contemporaries would gain from being 'romanticized.'

This, of course, leads to the questions of tempo rubato, and of meter and rhythm. Rhythm was of absolute, primal importance to Messiaen. Some have thought that Messiaen's complex rhythms are simply indications of rubato - a conclusion that, however, Messiaen emphatically denied. [..]

This does not, however, in any way mean that Messiaen did not use rubato in performance. On the contrary, we hear rubato extensively in his recordings. Many lyric phrases begin with the first note or two somewhat held back, then with a ritenuto at the end of the phrase. The highest note of a phrase may be prolonged: "Les Bergers," p. 9, the right-hand A in m. 16 and high D in m. 19; "Les Anges," p. 1, the right-hand B's in the first system. We hear cadential ritardandos that are not indicated in the scores, e.g., the middle of "Les Eaux de la Grâce" (p. 5, m. 4), or the close of the opening monody of "l'Ange aux Parfums." One conspicuous rhythmic alteration is the quickening of groups of 32nd notes, e.g., the pick-up figures in "Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux," as well as several figures in "Les Anges." This is a very typical romantic performance practice: the "enhancement" of shorter note values by quickening them.35 We hear an especially striking use of rubato in the toccata section of the fifth Trinité Mèditation, in which the pedal melody's sixteenth/eighth downward fifth (p. 42, m. 6; p. 43, m. 6) is emphasized, particularly by stretching the 16th. Surprising though it may seem to use rubato in such a relentlessly motoric texture, the effect is wonderfully powerful and dramatic, making other performances seem stiff and lifeless by comparison. “

I completely agree with Timothy Tikker. It’s very clear that Olivier Messiaen was grounded in the romantic performance style and perhaps his music should be approached in that way. Many post or contemporary organists of Messiaen tend to play his music only “as written” which makes their performances seem “stiff and lifeless by comparison” again quoting Timothy Tikker.
We have the same situation with the piano music of Bela Bartok and Sergei Prokofiev - they were also schooled in the romantic tradition and also played their music in that manner (cf. their many recorded performances of their own works), but since they suggested a new and much more percussive approach to the piano, many pianist afterwards tend to have all their focus on that element forgetting that the music was shaped with the romantic idiom in mind.
Again many thanks to Anders Riber for the transfers.

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