Olivier Messiaen’s oeuvre can be among the 20th-century canon’s tougher to crack. He seemed to have a sense of this, in a 1985 essay identifying his focus on rhythm, ideas about tonal colors, emphasis on birdsong, and Catholicism as potentially off-putting “difficulties” about his music. Yet all of those characteristics are defining qualities of his catalogue and, when presented rightly, can reveal his music to be not only profoundly moving but also downright accessible.
Such is the case with Paavo Järvi’s new survey of Messiaen orchestral works early and late with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, of which he became music director this fall. In it, Järvi has juxtaposed three of Messiaen’s earliest works – Le Tombeau resplendissant, Les Offrandes oubliées, and L’Ascension – with one of his last, 1989’s Un sourire.
They’re all decidedly personal statements. Le Tombeau resplendissant looks back on Messiaen’s youth following the death of his mother and prior to his marriage to his first wife with a mix of bitterness and hope. Les Offrandes oubliées and L’Ascension are meditations on different aspects of his faith. Un sourire, written for the bicentenary of Mozart’s death, is a study in cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
Järvi and his band seem perfectly at home in all of them.
Le Tombeau resplendissant opens with a beguilingly realized mix of Stravinskyan influences (darting, punchy rhythmic figures) and lush, familiar Messiaen textures. The present reading features electrifying precision in the former and lustrous woodwind playing in Le Tombeau’s searching middle section.
The tripartite Les Offrandes oubliées packs a lot into its 10-minute duration, all of which comes out in a terrific visceral performance here: a pungent, flowing “The Cross” leads directly into a ferociously taut, boldly colored depiction of “Sin.” Consolation is provided by way of a radiant “Eucharist.”
L’Ascension, too, doesn’t lack for color or drama. Even if it’s often pegged as a fundamentally immature Messiaen score, what comes over in the Zürich orchestra’s performance is thoroughly persuasive.
The first movement’s (“Majesté du Christ demandant a gloire à son Père”) brass playing surges with purpose. Woodwind rhythms and flourishes in the second (“Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui desire le ciel”) are crisp and biting. Here, too, there’s a wonderful sense of mystery and drama, the instrumental textures at the end glinting like flames in a holy bonfire. A spry, vigorous third movement (“Alléluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbal”) and gorgeously dissonant, devotional finale (“Prière du Christ montant vers son Père”) round out what is surely one of the finest L’Ascensions on disc.
And Un sourire comes over with innocent warmth. The concept of the piece – bright, serene chords alternating with lustrous rhythmic episodes – is simple enough, but Järvi and his orchestra shape it all carefully and inevitably. The results, to borrow from an earlier title, are resplendent.