Nagano Conducts Messiaen

BRK900203 cover

MESSIAEN: La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. Poèmes Pour Mi.* Chronochromie / *Jenny Daviet, sop; Bayerischen Rundfunks Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Kent Nagano, cond / BR Klassik 900203

In the long view, Kent Nagano was Frank Zappa’s greatest musical gift to the world. Although Nagano had been working professionally since 1976 as assistant conductor to Sarah Caldwell at the Boston Opera Company, and then conductor of the Berkeley Symphony starting in 1978, a post he held for 31 years(!), it was a concert with the London Symphony in 1982 of works by Zappa that put him on the map as a front-rank conductor.

But Nagano became a champion of Messiaen’s music during his early years at Berkeley and began corresponding with the composer. This led to his being chosen to work with Messiaen on the final stages of his opera Saint François d’Assise in Paris, where he lived with Messiaen and his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, whom he came to regard as his “European parents.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, my tolerance for most “religious” music is quite low, but in Messiaen’s case, as in those of Frank Martin and even J.S. Bach, I make exceptions because the music itself is so great. In addition, Messiaen actually had a very strange and very personal view of Christianity as a mystical part of the universe, an attitude he picked up from his mother who was a poet and a mystic. His scores, then, eschew “religiosity” in the strict sense; he was, rather, trying to connect with what jazz pianist Bill Evans called “the universal overmind,” which is where his particular form of Catholicism came from.

And I must say, in all honesty, that Nagano’s readings of both the massive La Transfiguration and the much shorter Chronochromie are far more intense and more interesting than even those of Sylvain Cambreling, whose set of Messiaen’s complete orchestral works I gave very high praise to more than a decade ago in one of my reviews for an established classical music magazine. It’s a matter of pacing and shaping in addition to attention to detail. Cambreling brought out the mysticism in Messiaen’s music more through a sort of shape-shifting process, working on the flow of the music while not ignoring all of the salient details in the score. Nagano, by comparison, digs into the textures of the scores with greater clarity, giving one an almost 3-D view of the music. To put it another way, he conducts Messiaen as if he were Stravinsky, a composer for whom crystal clarity of all the voices in the orchestra was vitally important.

Thus where Cambreling’s performance of La Transfiguration suggests a more ambient sound, Nagano’s constantly brings out all the inner voices of the orchestra without consciously trying to impress one with the aura of the music. The result is not only more bracing than Cambreling but also tauter in structure, which isn’t to say that the Cambreling performance is inferior so much as that the Nagano performance is, in an almost intangible way, better. Every note and phrase in this recording is conducted from inside the music whereas Cambreling digs deeply but approaches it from the outside. I freely admit to not having heard every recording of this work, but I would be hard put to imagine a greater one than this.

And the Bayerischen Rundfunks Orchestra and Chorus respond brilliantly to his direction, playing every note and phrase as if their very lives depended on it. Yes, the choral part reminds one of religious chant, but one can always put whatever spin one likes on the music per se. I was more impressed by how Nagano brought so much detail out without sounding as if he were over-italicizing the music.

Moving on to the Poèmes pour Mi, one hears a lovely performance by French soprano Jenny Daviet and a similarly linear and crystal-clear performance by Nagano and the orchestra. From a strictly vocal standpoint, I prefer the richer voices of Renée Fleming and Anne Schwanewilms, but Daviet is just fine and on a par with Yvonne Naef who recorded them with Cambreling. Once again, however, it is the sound of the orchestra and the musical phrasing which sets Nagano’s version apart from theirs.

Nagano’s Chromachromie may be the single best performance I’ve yet heard of any of Messiaen’s orchestral works. In his skilled hands, it pops and sizzles like bacon on a griddle, constantly surprising even the experienced listener who knows the piece. When he gets into the faster sections of the music, such as at the 2:13 mark in the Introduction, he again drives the music as if it were Stravinsky, with superb results. I was absolutely mesmerized by his conducting of this work, and thus recommend it highly to all those who enjoy Messiaen’s strange but wonderful aesthetic.

My only (small) complaint with this release is its division into three CDs, with the first one running only 32:28 and the third 50:37. BR Klassik could easily have put the last two tracks of La Transfiguration on the third CD, then combined the rest of CD 2 with CD 1 to make it a 2-CD set; after all, each section of La Transfiguration is separate, with a definite ending in each. Otherwise, this is a fabulous set.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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