messiaen canyons seattle

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Des Canyons aux Étoiles
Steven Osborne (piano) Jeffrey Fair (horn)
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, 2 & 4 June 2022, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Seattle Symphony Media SSM1028 [90]

You wait around for years for a recording of Messiaen’s vast Des Canyons aux Étoiles then two come along together! Hot on the heels of Thierry Fischer’s splendid Utah set comes this sumptuous offering from Seattle. Whilst the Utah version had the benefit of what must have been the extraordinary experience of playing this music at the place that inspired it, Bryce Canyon, the recordings were made in the studio. This new one was made live and what a difference it makes.

Suffice it to say that these two new recordings trump any other earlier releases of this astonishing work. I got to know it from an old CBS recording by Esa Pekka Salonen (if my memory serves me right) but that now seems dry and insipid next to either Fischer or Morlot. The surprising thing about the Morlot is how the extra adrenaline of live performance makes the score sound much more like Turangalîla than I have ever previously expected. Instead of a largely static piece, what emerges is a dynamic, pulsing narrative full of rich and vivid colours where previously it sounded austere and desert-like in auditory terms.

It helps enormously to have as pianist who brings the sensibility of a world class Debussy player to the Messiaen piano part finding the colour and nuance of the French tradition where other pianists emphasise a much more abrasive modernism. Not content to just get round the many notes, his rendition of the part is full of play, wit and even on occasions a sense of the absurd. More than anything it is thrillingly virtuosic with pianist and orchestra pushing each other to ever greater feats. The percussion, in particular, is rendered with great imagination and beauty in response to Osbourne’s pianism. Try the glittering nightscape of the eighth movement to see what I mean. In Morlot’s hands I don’t think Messiaen has ever sounded so much a part of the French tradition.

The Seattle brass are quite exceptional. Warm and glowing like a desert sunset but ripe and imperious in the moments that are meant to humble us listeners. Obviously, the horn soloist is the star but his colleagues aren’t so far behind. They are joyous where others are merely solemn. The final movement, Zion Park, quivers with ecstatic passion bringing the whole piece to genuinely awe inspiring conclusion, leaving even Fischer sounding a little disengaged by comparison.

The sum total of all this is a sense of joyous celebration previously unsuspected in most other versions. I confidently placed the Fischer Utah account at the top of the list for this piece but that looks far from certain now. The extra excitement, the sense of drama and of a compelling narrative thread and the extraordinary richness of the sounds the orchestra makes – captured in sound that pips even the efforts of the Hyperion engineers – leads me to award the palm to Morlot and his terrific Seattle band.

David McDade

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