Messiaen: Piano and Organ Music; Orchestral, Chamber works & Song cycles

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COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Piano and Organ Music; Orchestral, Chamber works & Song cycles
PERFORMER: Sherlaw Johnson, Ogdon, Thibaudet (piano), Preston, Trotter (organ); Choir of St John’s College Cambridge/George Guest; Royal Concertgebouw Orch/Chailly (Piano and Organ Music); Barker, Palmer (soprano), Loriod, Sherlaw Johnson, Thibaudet, Ogdon, Lucas, Crossley (piano); Stokowski, Boulez, Dorati, Chailly, Haitink (Orchestral, chamber and song)
CATALOGUE NO: Decca 478 0353 (piano and organ); Decca 478 0352 (orchestral, chamber & song)

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These two splendid boxes from Decca, one devoted to piano and organ music, the other to orchestral, chamber and vocal music, are the most interesting sets to have appeared commemorating Messiaen’s centenary. Many of these performances are appearing on CD for the first time. Moreover, unlike DG’s 32-CD Complete Edition, which would have received plaudits had it not turned out to be so ludicrously limited an edition that it disappeared from the catalogue faster than it took to listen to it, these seem to be in good supply.

As if to underline that the boundaries between the sets are not rigid, the piano and organ music volume opens with a sensational live account of Oiseaux exotiques from Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Royal Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly. This acts as a curtain‑raiser for the Catalogue d’oiseaux piano cycle, capably delivered by Robert Sherlaw Johnson. Although his name has long been familiar to Messiaen devotees, relatively few will be at all familiar with his performances. Like his seminal (recently reissued) book, they are a magnificent achievement for the time, even if they have since been superseded by the likes of Peter Hill. There is no lack of virtuosity or colour, but pianists now find more time for this music to breathe.

John Ogdon is rather more variable in Messiaen’s other large piano cycle, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, with each moment of inspiration seeming to be balanced by a misjudgement. An unreserved welcome back to the catalogue, though, for Simon Preston’s recording of La nativité du seigneur, which is full of life and charm. Thomas Trotter’s performances also have much to admire, especially in a beautiful Messe de la pentecôte, though the acoustic is a little to clean for this repertoire, and the organ’s action is distractingly noisy at times.

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Sherlaw Johnson stars again in the orchestral, chamber and vocal set, accompanying Noelle Barker in fine accounts of Messiaen’s three song cycles, with a particularly telling Chants de terre et de ciel. The return to the catalogue after three decades of Felicity Palmer’s ravishing performance of the orchestral version of Poèmes pour Mi under Pierre Boulez is also good news, while Antál Dorati’s recording of La transfiguration should be compulsory listening for anyone remotely interested in the composer’s mature style. It would surely be a crime, on the other hand, to force anyone to sit more than once through Haitink’s dreary Et Exspecto, Odgon and Brenda Lucas’s romp through Visions de l’amen or this emotionless performance of the Quartet for the End of Time which finds its stellar line-up of Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, Michael Collins and Olli Mustonen utterly earthbound. It says much, though, that despite such turkeys, this is still a very enticing set, including such gems as Stokowski’s typically forthright 1970 L’ascension and Chailly’s searing Turangalîla. Christopher Dingle