Messiaen Fête des belles eaux

Metallic mysteries from Montreal – rare music for multiple ondes martenots

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Messiaen Fête des belles eaux

  • Féte des belles eaux
  • String Quartet, Moderato très doux

Maurice Martenot’s electronic instrument was first heard in 1928. Nine years after that Olivier Messiaen, who was just beginning to make his mark as a composer, decided to write a substantial amount of music for an ensemble of no fewer than six. The occasion was a son et lumière presentation by the River Seine as part of an International Exhibition of Arts and Technology. The eight movements of Fêtes des belles eaux are very much background music: and although Messiaen reused some of the material a few years later in his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, listening to the 35 minutes of Fêtes without an accompanying visual spectacular would be a fairly austere experience without its unusual, not to say unprecedented, sound qualities.

The ondes martenot – whose finest hour would come within the exotic canvas of the Turangalîla-Symphonie – is neither characterless nor colourless. With its saxophone-like tone, it is as capable of rapidly articulated lines as of dreamy meditation, and Messiaen’s early style, echoing Debussy and Ravel while also hinting at his encounters with oriental music, fits well with the rather metallic mysteriousness of the sound. The Ensemble d’Ondes de Montréal with two additional performers impress with the refined precision of their playing, though the recorded sound cannot completely avoid touches of abrasiveness verging on distortion in certain textures.

The disc also includes Messiaen’s four unpublished duets for ondes and piano, edited by Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen and first recorded by her with her sister Jeanne on a recently reissued Jade CD (2/09). As for the transcription made by Maurice Martenot’s sister Ginette of the first movement of Ravel’s string quartet: the notes tell us that Ravel himself approved, and as transcribed string music this is no better and no worse than a multitude of quartet arrangements for piano.

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