Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Pentatone)

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Messiaen Catalogue d’oiseaux
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Pentatone PTC 5186670 (hybrid CD/SACD) 152:11 mins (3 discs)

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Catalogue d’oiseaux should not work. From the deceptively bald title, via the disjunct between capturing the sounds of birds and evoking sights, smells and feelings, to its vast length and fearsome technical demands, Messiaen’s grand ornithological cycle of 13 nature portraits for solo piano is an absurd proposition. And yet, he makes it work through sheer force of compositional personality. This is no dry listing, but a varied series of compelling musical dramas that become ever more fascinating on each reacquaintance.

Few are better acquainted than Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and this set is clearly a long-pondered act of love. Individual pieces appeared on earlier releases, but here the focus is exclusively, devotedly to the cycle as a whole, with no compulsion to include the later birdsong works. The handsome set, which sounds wonderful in both stereo and surround sound, also includes a bonus DVD with Aimard’s thoughts about each piece and (spoiler alert) even a couple of (fake) feathers. Needless to say, Aimard possesses the necessary dazzling virtuosity, but also the exceptionally broad palette of colour and timbral precision. In his hands, the opening of the gorgeous nocturne ‘L’Alouette lulu’ is a masterclass in balance, ‘Le merle bleu’ has an enthralling clear-sighted beauty while there is visceral power to the explosions of joy in ‘Le Traquet rieur’.

On occasion Aimard’s own vocalisations creep into the picture. While potentially distracting, they ultimately serve as a reminder of the deep humanity underpinning the music and Aimard’s performance of this paean to nature.

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Christopher Dingle