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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Catalogue d'Oiseaux

Martin Zehn (piano)
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS (3 Discs) 74321 72122 2
[DDD CD 1 60:37 CD 2 46:32 CD 3 44:47]
Crotchet  £9.00  Amazon UK   £12.99 Amazon US

The thirteen tableaux (sub-divided into seven books), which collectively comprise Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux not only form one of the great landmarks of twentieth century piano literature, they also bring the performer face to face with a formidable challenge, both intellectually and physically. With the longest movement, Le Rousserolle Effarvate (The Reed Warbler), coming in at a few seconds under half an hour, each "scene" is, in its own way, a tour-de-force, calling on every reserve of stamina and concentration from the pianist.

This is Messiaen nature painting in its most literal form. It is fascinating to see the composer's own commentary on his work reproduced in the booklet notes, his highly detailed synopsis of each piece describing the birdsong which he transcribes but also placing it in the context of its visual surroundings. The following extract from Le Traquet Stapazin (The Black-eared Wheatear), is a typical example:

"Late June. The Côte Vermeille. Above Banyuls: Cap l'Abeille, Cap Rederis. Rocky cliffs, mountains, the sea, the terraced vineyards. The vine-leaves are still green. By the roadside, a Black-eared Wheatear. Proud, noble, he stands erect on the stones in his fine dress of orange silk and black velvet-an inverted T dividing the white of his tail, a deep black mask covering the area below his eye, cheeks and throat. He has the look of some grand Spanish noble off to a masked ball. His verse is strong, brusque, brief. Not far off, in the vines, an Ortolan Bunting ecstatically launches its fluting repeated notes, with their sad ending".

The commentary is peppered with such gifts to the performer as "ecstatic", "explodes", "mysterious" and "jubilant", but sadly Berlin born Martin Zehn fails to capitalise on the wonderfully vivid descriptions which the composer provides. What we get is a performance which whilst technically competent, does not generally capture the atmosphere of Messiaen's surroundings. Zehn is described in the booklet notes as a contemporary specialist and this does come across in the impressive rhythmic accuracy of much of his playing. There are also some moments of subtlety, as in the second piece La Loriot (The Golden Oriole), where Messiaen alternates birdsong with more static chords which Zehn pulls off with a reasonable degree of deftness and panache. Overall however he is unable to achieve the sheer range of expression and dynamics which this meticulously conceived music calls for. To make matters worse he is not aided by a piano and recording which is at best dry, at worst totally lifeless, allowing little opportunity for the listener to revel in the reverberations of Messiaen's unique and colourful sound world.

Christopher Thomas

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