Messiaen: Piano Works (complete)

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Regis
WORKS: Piano Works (complete)
PERFORMER: Peter Hill, Benjamin Frith (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: RRC 7001 Reissue (1986-92)
What an abundance of riches! Pianists who have the versatility to tackle the entirety of Messiaen’s output – from the vast religious canvass of the Vingt regards to the progressive quasi-serial world of the Études de rythme and the variegated colours of Catalogue d’oiseaux – with any success are still rare beasts. To encounter two in close succession is both illuminating and enthralling.

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It should be said at the outset that, as might be expected from a favoured protégé of Yvonne Loriod, Muraro is more than up to the task. His set contains many delights, from the astonishing range of colours in the more ebullient movements of Vingt regards, to the gritty, no-holds-barred approach to the Études de rythme, and from the uniquely convincing account of the musically slight Rondeau to his vibrant reading of ‘La rousserolle effarvatte’ from Catalogue d’oiseaux. The Préludes are far more than post-Debussian Impressionism, with the music revealing echoes of Ravel, Chopin, Liszt and Mussorgsky in Muraro’s hands.

Much of the set is recorded live and there are substantial changes in sonorities between works. For the most part, though, the recorded sound is splendid, capturing both every nuance of the playing and a very real sense of occasion. There are some reservations, notably the reluctance to explore extremely slow tempi, so that Vingt regards apparently opens with a graceful minuet while ‘Première communion de la vierge’ lacks a sense of inner calm. Taken as a whole, though, this set is a magnificent achievement that richly rewards, indeed demands, repeated listening.

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Peter Hill’s recordings, made in consultation with the composer, need few introductions, having attracted choruses of praise when first released on Unicorn-Kanchana. His accounts are not merely about extraordinary pianism, but convey with profound empathy the impulses behind the music. To have this justifiably legendary set, which also includes the two-piano Visions de l’Amen, for the cost of two full-price discs is an unbelievable bargain. Hill’s set should be in every collection, but Muraro can be heartily recommended too. Rather than fighting for supremacy, these two sets complement each other perfectly. For once it is not unreasonable to suggest the Messiaen fan investing in both.