Messiaen: Vision de l’amen

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Bridge
WORKS: Vision de l’amen
PERFORMER: Sarah Rothenberg, Marilyn Nonken (pianos)
CATALOGUE NO: Bridge 9324

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Written in the midst of occupied Paris, Visions de l’amen marks the beginning of one of the great creative partnerships. Like Clara and Robert Schumann, the incredible pianism of Yvonne Loriod acted as a catalyst for Messiaen, sparking a litany of works dedicated to her, and taking advantage of her exceptional talents.

Visions de l’amen became their party-piece, with a clear division of labour between the two parts, one showing-off Loriod’s strengths while Messiaen’s part tends to have control of the principal themes.

In Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal’s new version, these differences are delineated by exaggerating the spatial separation between the two pianos. Sadly, this rapidly causes a distraction. The result evokes those LPs that demonstrated the wonders of stereo, so that it would have been little surprise to hear a steam train chug from one speaker to the other.

This is a pity as Oppens and Lowenthal give a committed performance. At times they find a remarkable translucence, and there are some memorable hushed moments, notably in the long winding down of the ‘Amen du désir’. Elsewhere, they are generally brisk. This is not problematic in itself, but allied to an often-literal approach to the score, they do not take wing like the best versions.

Nonetheless, the final movement still works its transcendent magic, with its tumultuous, resounding climax that is impossible to follow. So it passes reason that Debussy’s En blanc et noir has been placed after it, bustling in after just ten seconds and committing the crime of making this utterly charming work seem like an uncouth clown.

Marilyn Nonken and Sarah Rothenberg commit no such faux pas for the simple reason that their disc presents Visions alone. This might seem like poor value, but it makes musical sense, and this performance is certainly worth investigating. Rothenberg studied with Loriod, while Nonken, an outstanding player of Tristan Murail’s music, brings a finely honed sense of sonority.

Their pacing is finely judged, and they draw upon a broad palette of colour allied to a sense of drama and wonder, captured in realistic sound. True, the final part of ‘Amen de la creation’ could be more momentous, and the opening lullaby of ‘Amen du désir’ is a touch hard-edged.

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However, these are relatively minor caveats in a captivating performance, and, in the final pages, all heaven breaks loose. Christopher Dingle