Yvonne Loriod dies aged 86

Pianist and widow of Olivier Messiaen remembered

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Yvonne Loriod, the pianist and widow of Olivier Messiaen, has died aged 86.

Born 20 January 1924, she was a leading light among the post-war generation of performers and composers, quickly gaining a reputation for exceptional virtuosity, making light of the most fearsome contemporary scores, and an extraordinary memory.

She gave the French premiere of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto to great acclaim at just eight days’ notice, when the intended soloist dropped out having declared the work unplayable. Loriod championed the music of composers such as Boulez, Barraqué and Henze, but she was also lauded for her accounts of works by Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Bach, Berg, Schoenberg, de Falla, Albéniz, Beethoven and Debussy.

Loriod was a champion of the latter’s Études at a time when they were still regarded as arid, and she made an exceptional recording of Beethoven's Hammerklavier. A gifted pedagogue, she was also much in demand for the juries of piano competitions.

Nonetheless, it is with the music of Messiaen that her name has become synonymous, having been the catalyst for the piano taking centre stage in numerous of his works from the 1940s onwards, either in vast cycles for the instrument, such as Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944) and Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58), or as soloist in orchestral canvasses such as Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-48), La Transfiguration (1965-69) and Des canyons aux étoiles... (1972-74).

They met in 1941, when Messiaen was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, where she was a student. Within a couple of years, he began writing the first of many works inspired by Loriod’s tigerish pianism, Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. He would later apologise to other pianists negotiating his music, explaining that he never had to worry about its difficulty as he knew that Loriod could play anything.

Messiaen and Loriod eventually married in 1961, and her devotion to him was total. Following his death in 1992, she undertook the herculean task of preparing his seven volume Traité de rythme, de couleur et d'ornithologie (Treatise on rhythm, colour and ornithology) according to Messiaen’s plan, as well as the scores of his final works and various rediscovered pieces from much earlier in his career.

In one of the short films accompanying his 2005 DVD of the Vingt Regards, Roger Muraro relates that he and Loriod had visited Messiaen’s grave ten days earlier: ‘Madame Loriod told me: “I loved him, and I love him still”’.

Christopher Dingle