Chiara Plays Messiaen

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MESSIAEN: 8 Préludes. Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas. Fantaisie Burleske. Quatre Études de rythme: Ile de feu I & II. Prélude posth. 1964 / Chiara Cipelli, pno / Piano Classics PCL10200

Italian pianist Chiara Cipelli, who studied at the Conservatory G. Nicolini, Piacenza, the Musikhochschule Freiburg i Br. and the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot, presents us with a program of some of Olivier Messiaen’s more unusual piano pieces. In fact, as it turns out I had none of these in my collection.

I’ve often said that I generally like Messiaen’s piano pieces but find his organ music dark, muddy and ugly, which is odd because he was a noted organist, but this is true. Perhaps it is because the piano has a “crisp” sound and attack whereas the organ has a slow, somewhat soft attack, but whatever the case, Messiaen’s organ music just makes my skin crawl. I can’t give you a rational explanation for it, but it does. In this program, Cipelli starts with one of the composer’s earliest works, the 8 Préludes of 1928-29, when the composer was only 20-21 years old. You can hear that he is working towards his own personal style, but has not quite arrived there yet. The music of the first two preludes, for instance, consist primarily of chime chords played in a slow succession, using the sort of harmony that Debussy used in The Engulfed Cathedral while adding a few personal touches here and there. Another thing that strikes you at this early stage of his development is that Messiaen was then still using a regular pulse and forward momentum in his music. It would be a while before he would start blurring the line of rhythm, producing music that floats along in the listener’s mind while the harmonies swirl and clash to produce his unique effects, though you can hear some of this in the second half of the second prelude. Cipelli is fully engaged in this music, and in fact I think her being Italian helps her understand Messiaen’s use of rhythm at this point.

From the point of view of technique, I noted that Cipelli generally plays with a very strong attack and uses the sustain pedal frequently but judiciously. In this respect she differs from most, but not all, piano interpreters of Messiaen I have heard, who tend to use softer contours in order to bring out the delicacy and “mystery” of his music. In short, it is very wide-awake Messiaen, and at least in these early works I don’t hear that as a detriment. It’s sort of like listening to Debussy play his own works; despite a few moments in soft passages where he deliberately blurred notes, much of his own playing is surprisingly strong-fingered and rhythmically acute. On the other hand, however, her avoidance of the sustain pedal except in those brief instances where she wishes to sustain a particular note or chord gives the music a bit less of a legato flow. Notes and chords tend to stand out like cacti in the desert sun, and while I can accept this sort of thing in most music, I find it less conducive to Messiaen than, say, to Beethoven or Stravinsky. I suppose it’s a matter of taste. I’m not saying that Cipelli misrepresents the music, only that she gives it a very different perspective from what I’m used to in his music. Joanna MacGregor’s Messiaen (Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jesus) has the same quality, and although I liked her recording of this long piece I was much more drawn to Martin Helmchen’s recording with its sonic “washes” and more flowing style. For just one example of what I mean, listen to her playing of the sixth prelude. All those chime chords are supposed to blur into one another to create a sort of sonic “wash,” whereas here they simply follow one another in succession, which in and of itself isn’t very interesting. Even Arturo Toscanini blended his sounds in French impressionist music better than this. Her performance of the eighth prelude, “Un reflet dans le vent,” seemed to me to work much better, and the Fantaisie-Burleske is also quite fine.

So that is my take on this particular release. Interesting music, sometimes played well and sometimes played in a choppy, disconnected style.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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