Gielen Conducts Messiaen

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MESSIAEN: Les Oubliées Offtandes. Poèmes pour Mi.* Chronochromie / *Sarah Leonard, sop; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Michael Gielen, cond / Orfeo C250131 (live: 1991 & 1996)

Michael Gielen’s posthumous recorded oeuvre continues to grow exponentially, here reaching the mystical French composer Olivier Messiaen. For Gielen, a wide-awake, objectivist conductor in the same vein as Rodziński, Leibowitz, Markevitch and Boulez, approaching the music of Messiaen seems like a poor fit; it’s just not his thing. Or was it?

As it turns out, his performance of Les Oubliées Offrandes is not only meticulously played in terms of orchestral clarity—one hears every note and every strand of the music as one sees it on paper—but it is also the most emotional performance I’ve yet heard. Granted, by range of experience in this piece isn’t very wide, consisting of Cambreling, Chung and Giulini, but he is better than those three conductors. The slow opening section is constantly nudged forward ever-so-slightly by Gielen’s enlivened conducting, and when the loud explosion occurs, it does not sound as jarring and out of place as in the other performances cited above because here, too, his focus is on orchestral transparency and clarity, not a massive sound such as the one that Chung elicits on his recording.

Although this performance of the more familiar Poèmes pour Mi is a good one, the microphone placement, like that of the preceding work, is somewhat distant. This doesn’t really hurt the sound textures of the orchestra, but soprano Sarah Leonard’s excellent voice is simply swimming in echo/reverb. I know some people who love this sound, but I’m not one of them, thus I give this performance a qualified positive rating. Since Leonard does not interpret the lyrics at all, one must ask one’s self if this is the kind of performance you personally like. Granted, the French tradition between roughly 1904 and the late 1950s was to sing both opera and French chansons with no interpretation whatsoever, so as far as historical performance practice goes, this is correct, but personally I prefer the more involved versions by sopranos Renée Fleming (one of her finest recordings) and Anne Schwanewilms. Nevertheless, the decision is yours to make, not mine, since both approaches are valid.

In Chronochromie, Gielen sounds particularly happy and at home in this, Messiaen’s most harmonically and rhythmically complex orchestral score, and the sound on this live recording is, happily, somewhat clearer and more focused than the first two works, which helps particularly in focusing the brass outbursts as well as the complex interaction of the winds. (The complex interaction of the percussion comes through clearly no matter who is conducting it.) To be honest, it’s not my favorite Messiaen orchestral piece, but it is interesting from a technical standpoint, and Gielen imbues the music with considerable emotion as well as energy.

All in all, then, an interesting CD for Gielen aficionados, something pretty far outside his normal repertoire.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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