Messiaen Catalogue d'oiseaux
Messiaen was very proud of how pictorial his Catalogue d’oiseaux is, of how it illustrates not only the songs of birds but their flight, the landscapes which they inhabit, even the times of day and the seasons of the year at which he chose to portray them. There is hardly a bar of music in the cycle’s two-and-half-hours that is not intended to describe a sensory impression. It is more than a pity, then, that Naxos do not include his detailed notes on each piece in the slender booklet accompanying this performance, since Hakan Austbo evokes those images with such precision. In that disturbed nocturne “The tawny owl”, for example (“La chouette hulotte”, No. 5 of the set), Messiaen speaks of “shadows, fear, the heart that beats too fast”: they are all vividly here, and so, very clearly, are the systematized modes of duration and intensity that he uses to evoke the terror of the night. The recurrent cry of the mistle-thrush that acts as a refrain throughout his picture of the buzzard (“La buse variable”, No. 11) and its habitat sounds exactly like “a sad but courageous fanfare” in Austbo’s handling, and he most poetically renders Messiaen’s fancy that “the sun seems to be the gilded emanation of the oriole’s song” (“Le loriot”, No. 2).
The absence of the composer’s superscriptions is my main reservation about this set; that and the inclusion of the late and brief Petites esquisses d’oiseaux instead of the more obvious supplement to the Catalogue, which is Messiaen’s dazzling La fauvette des jardins (“The garden warbler”). In fact there would probably have been room for both. But even without either of them any complete recording of the Catalogue is bound to run to three CDs, and it is a pleasure to welcome Austbo’s version for its own qualities as well as its super-budget price. He is at times slightly more hasty than other interpreters of the cycle, and one or two landscape evocations lose a little of their grandeur as a result, but this goes with an attractive nervous rhythmic precision and a brilliance of colour that characterize Messiaen’s birds quite graphically. He is good at measured silences, too, and at the huge contrasts of texture this cycle demands: “the calm flow of the river; joyful fanfares of the blackbird; the blue-green shimmer of the kingfisher ...”, all in rapid succession in “La bouscarle” (“Cetti’s warbler”, No. 9). Just once or twice I thought his pianism a touch too percussive, but more often than not the music demands this very quality: Messiaen compares the cry of the coot (in No. 7, “La rousserolle effarvatte” – “The reed warbler”) to the sound of pebbles being clashed together and discerns “something wild and obstinate” in the call of the warbler itself.
A very satisfying performance, in short, and it has been sensitively recorded. But you will get much more from this fine set if you can find a copy of Messiaen’s descriptive annotations. Peter Hill’s outstanding account of the Catalogue on Unicorn-Kanchana, a touch less mercurially brilliant than Austbo but also more musingly poetic, does include both those texts and La fauvette des jardins.'