Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux

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LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: Catalogue d’oiseaux
PERFORMER: Martin Zehn (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 72122 2
It has to be admitted that Catalogue of Birds is hardly the most enticing title for a cycle of piano pieces lasting at least two and a half hours. In fact, the title of Messiaen’s epic masterpiece has more to do with the puritanical artistic atmosphere at the time that he wrote it (1956-8) than the actual substance of this distinctly unpuritanical set of nature portraits. Far from being a list of birdcalls, Catalogue d’oiseaux is a series of paintings in sound, with the 13 pieces depicting scenes from around France. In addition to transcriptions of birdsong, there are depictions of scenery, other creatures, trees, water and even smells. The range of invention is astonishing, with no two pieces following the same pattern, while the demands made on the pianist in this ornithological and pictorial marathon are Herculean.


For over a decade, Peter Hill’s accounts of these pieces have beaten off all challengers with their combination of breathtaking virtuosity and evocative poetry. Martin Zehn falls substantially short of Hill’s standards. It is possible, like Anatol Ugorski (DG), to approach Catalogue d’oiseaux simply as a pianistic tour de force. Zehn, like Carl-Axel Dominique (BIS), has neither Ugorski’s strength of personality, nor the ability to convey an unfolding drama in the manner of Hill. Zehn also has the unique distinction of offering no filler. Unicorn-Kanchana is in the process of deleting Hill’s version (a crime for which it deserves vilification), but Håkan Austbø (Naxos) is a strong second choice if Hill is unavailable. Christopher Dingle