MESSIAEN Catalogue d’oiseaux (Aimard)
Messiaen’s birds have, it seems, been tamed: at least to the extent that there are something like a dozen versions of the Catalogue d’oiseaux obtainable on CD or as downloads. Once upon a time such a plethora would have been hard to conceive, given the extreme demands of the 13 pieces on the pianist’s physical and mental agility, plus the challenge for the listener of their remorselessly forbidding textures and obsessive cut-and-paste structures. Not that his other great piano cycle, the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, is exactly a picnic; but at least its technical tours de force are more immediately connectable to pianistic traditions (Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel) and its esoteric imagery easier for the listener to relate to the music.
All this can be viewed positively, of course, as a result of Messiaen’s whittling away at clichés, leaving only his authentic individual voice. That’s provided you can take his extraordinarily detailed evocations of his beloved birds (all 77 of them) and their various habitats in France at various times of the day as serving his dazzling and inexhaustible pianistic invention, rather than – as he himself would have wanted it – the other way round. But how else to get past the anthropomorphic descriptions that would make even a Scriabin blush? How, for instance, is the player supposed to make a bird sound ‘voluble’ or ‘nonchalant’, never mind ‘like the cry of an assassinated child’? In fact the Catalogue enshrines a central paradox: its concept is at the extreme end of programmaticism while its effect is just as extremely abstract.
Unsurprisingly, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s interpretations are anything but tame. His dynamic range is formidable, his voicing of chords scrupulously faithful, his clarity unimpeachable. It’s hard to imagine the textures having greater impact or precision, or the continuity and discontinuity being projected with greater concentration. Opinions might vary with regard to his pianistic colours, on whether his fortissimos are unduly metallic, for instance. But the extremes are written into the score, and certainly not a single sound emerges with indifference.
Put a microscope on the playing and there are some passing oddities: long notes are regularly cut short in ‘L’Alouette lulu’ and ‘Le Loriot’, for example, and the pedalling in ‘La Buse variable’ as the buzzard makes its circles isn’t quite by the book. On the other hand, the ‘interminable trill’ of the grasshopper warbler in ‘La Rousserolle Effarvatte’ is given even slightly more than its regulation 37 seconds, whereas the otherwise hyper-faithful Yvonne Loriod is content with 22. Nor is the usually scrupulous Peter Hill beyond reproach in terms of metronomic accuracy: the opening of his ‘Rousserolle Effarvatte’ is a good 25 per cent under tempo.
Yes, this is no more than nitpicking. And, truth to tell, all these three are supreme Messiaen exponents. Is it a dereliction of duty if I say I can’t find a way of ranking them? Loriod’s touch is if anything even more uncompromising than Aimard’s; Hill isn’t quite so clamorous, but his cushioned sound at quieter levels makes for a more plausible evocation of such things as the ‘rose and mauve’ sunrise in ‘La Rousserolle Effarvatte’.
There are one or two external factors to consider. If you are allergic to grunting and sniffing, be warned that Aimard evidently isn’t. This is music that sensitises the ear to tiny nuances of colour, and odd groans that might be intensely involving in the concert hall can be equally distracting on disc. Mind you, the traffic noise that impinges on Loriod’s recordings can also be annoying if you let it. Otherwise all three recordings are superb: kudos to the piano technicians.
Nigel Simeone’s essay for Pentatone is exceptionally informative on factual background. The late Anthony Pople’s for Unicorn-Kanchana scores just as highly for sensitive musical assessment. For Loriod the 18-disc set on Warner Classics contained Messiaen’s own treasurable if highly idiosyncratic commentary but this is not available with the current download version.
Perhaps the most curious thing about Aimard’s venture is the absence of ‘La Fauvette des jardins’, the wonderful half-hour pendant to Messiaen’s Catalogue, not to mention the 1961 ‘La Fauvette passerinette’ rediscovered by Peter Hill and recorded by him on Delphian. But maybe there are plans to add these at a later date. Meanwhile I salute an outstanding achievement.