A colleague at MusicWeb International recently
remarked that first one admires Messiaen’s music and then one
comes to love it. But if some Internet forums are anything to
go by there is still a lot of hostility towards the composer and
his unique sound-world; indeed, one disgruntled poster complained
that there’s more musicality ‘in a pig’s oink’. As one who has
delighted in much of Messiaen’s mystico-spiritual œuvre,
from the solo piano pieces through to the organ and orchestral
works and the opera St François d’Assise, I am simply baffled
by such disparaging remarks.
Éclairs, written for the 150th
anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1992, is Messiaen’s
last and possibly one of his finest works, eliciting first my
unqualified admiration and, eventually, something much more profound.
No question, this man’s music is a pilgrimage with many stages,
but it’s a journey well worth making. The South Korean conductor
Myung-Whun Chung is one such traveller, recording some fine Messiaen
discs along the way. His version of Éclairs, with the Orchestre
de l’Opéra Bastille (DG 439 929), is the first of my comparative
versions; the second is by Dutch conductor David Porcelijn and
the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (ABC Classics ABC 4425102).
I wasn’t surprised to see Ingo Metzmacher associated
with this score – he conducted a rare performance of St François
at last year’s Proms – but I was curious to hear how the Viennese
band would fare in what is hardly core repertoire for them. As
for Porcelijn he may be a strong champion of Australian music
but he’s certainly made an impact with Éclairs as well.
Most important, though, is that all three conductors are united
by their passion for new music, and that’s a real plus in this
Loosely translated as ‘Illuminations of the Beyond...’
Éclairs continues Messiaen’s fascination with every aspect
of his Catholic faith. Unfortunately that religiosity is often
cited as a bar to the enjoyment of his music; that’s a real shame,
because even if you don’t ‘do’ God there is much to enjoy here.
The first movement, ‘The Apparition of Christ in Glory’, has a
palpable sense of majesty, the chant-like rise and fall of the
music adding to its growing sense of ecstasy. As expected the
Viennese brass are rich and creamy, easily eclipsing their Australian
and French counterparts The Bastille band are the least transported
of the three; indeed, Chung’s performance, although decently recorded,
seems somewhat cool and detached throughout. By contrast Porcelijn’s
players are much more characterful, producing some unusually piquant
This movement contains several pauses that can
easily impede the flow of the music. Metzmacher’s is the only
live recording here and he does allow quite a bit of time to elapse
between strophes, which may irritate some listeners; that said,
it’s the stage and audience noises that are most off-putting.
But such criticisms are quickly forgotten in the gong- and percussion-led
second movement, ‘The Constellation of Sagittarius’, complete
with birdsong. Again the WP acquit themselves very well indeed,
the Austrian Radio engineers capturing a deep, thrilling soundstage.
The more exotic percussion is particularly well caught. The orchestra
is quite closely miked, especially in that yearning string theme
that begins at 4:48, yet that gentle percussive stroke at 5:18
resonates beautifully in the hall and in the mind. It’s one of
those spine-tingling epiphanies that makes this music so terribly
The DG performance strikes me as the weakest of
the three at this point; Porcelijn’s reading is wonderfully clear-eyed,
his birds a little more distant than Metzmacher’s, but they’re
no less effective for that. Sonically the ABC recording is full
and clear – the percussive decay is very atmospheric – but the
ORF engineers have the upper hand when it comes to those more
elusive timbres. That is particularly true of the third movement,
‘The Lyre-bird and the Bridal City’, where the closer Viennese
balance delivers prodigious amounts of detail. It’s all gain,
though, especially with the tuned percussion which, on record
at least, has seldom sounded so lifelike. And if you’re worried
that this might be a bit too fatiguing don’t be, because the recording
is never tizzy or over-bright in the upper registers.
At this stage old allegiances were coming under
strain. I’ve long cherished the Porcelijn recording – one of the
most-played Messiaen discs in my collection – but for all its
character and felicities of detail it faces stiff competition
from Metzmacher and his crew. The added concentration of a live
performance probably works in the WP’s favour, but then few orchestras
could tackle this challenging repertoire with such authority and
aplomb. In the short fourth movement, ‘The Elect marked with the
Seal’, the panoply of birdsong is underpinned by matchless playing
from the Viennese percussionists.
Similarly, in ‘Abide in Love...’ the WP strings
bring a special intensity to the music’s long, melismatic lines,
even though the microphones do pick up a fair amount of shuffle
and squeak from the stage. This is one of the most glorious movements
in all Messiaen, with achingly beautiful sonorities and cadences.
Listeners familiar with the Turangalîla-Symphonie might
well recall the sinuous love music played on the ondes Martenot,
but this time Messiaen finds a naive purity of utterance that
is just remarkable. Porcelijn’s players are most eloquent here
and even the Bastille band delve deeper into the score than hitherto.
But the WP performance outshines them all, those incandescent
strings – so magical in Mahler – sounding simply glorious.
At the centre of this work is ‘The Seven Angels
with Seven Trumpets’, which opens with grave-cracking drum thwacks
and a repeated unison theme for horns, trombones and bassoons.
This is Messiaen at his most theatrical, the imperious brass and
the Eastern shimmer of various gongs strongly reminiscent of the
composer’s earlier La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ.
Again the immediacy of the ORF recording pays dividends, with
every stroke and snap easily caught. Porcelijn comes a close second
but his more recessed recording is nowhere near as visceral as
Metzmacher’s. The same is true of Chung’s performance, which sounds
too controlled – polite, even – for music of such obvious passion
and splendour. I particularly like the long decay of that last
gong stroke fading into the silence of the Musikvereinsaal. Simply
‘And God will wipe every tear from their eyes...’
brings the rapturous Messiaen – and his beloved birds – to the
fore again, combining the familiar twitter of woodwind with rich,
but restrained, playing from the brass. The Sydney recording may
be less overt Austrian one but even then it’s infinitely preferable
to the undercharged French performance. Meanwhile the angelus-like
‘Stars and their Glory’ comes across with a tangible sense of
mystery and awe. The competing musical strands are clearly delineated
in all three recordings – this is one of those strangely opaque
movements that so infuriates the anti-Messiaen brigade – but it’s
the Viennese who invest the score with an extra degree of exoticism
and inner drive.
After the thrilling climax of that movement – a
truly celestial display – there is something a bit more down to
earth in the sound of ‘Several birds from the Tree of Life’, before
we returns to inscrutable metaphysics in ‘The Way of the Invisible’.
The sheer depth and breadth of the opening bars couldn’t be more
of a contrast, especially with the Viennese band, who make that
great glissando sound truly terrifying. Metzmacher also
screws up the tension in a way I’ve never encountered before,
the percussion-led perorations simply awesome. Neither Porcelijn
nor Chung comes even close to matching the Viennese here. That
said, the Sydney percussionists do acquit themselves well, while
the French band remain curiously earthbound throughout. It’s a
problem I also encountered with Chung’s Radio France recording
of Des canyons aux étoiles (DG 471 617), another Messiaen
work just crying out to be recorded by Metzmacher and his WP players.
In the crowning ‘Christ, the Light of Paradise’
we are back to that Turangalîla-like love music, reprised
with even more sinuousness and intensity than before. One grumble,
though; there are quite a few bumps and thumps from the stage
which, on headphones at least, becomes irritating after a while.
Porcelijn is every bit as moving here, and he brings Éclairs
to a memorably rapt and gentle close. His players really do
give of their best here, and the results are literally out of
So, which recording should you buy? Chung is a
major disappointment, I feel, so that leaves Porcelijn and Metzmacher.
There is also a Berlin Philharmonic performance with Sir Simon
Rattle, but I find his Messiaen too mannered for my tastes, although
others will vehemently disagree. As much as I love the Porcelijn
performance – and I wouldn’t want to part with it – Metzmacher
trumps him at every turn. Indeed, I’d say this new version is
the most radiant and rewarding performance of Éclairs sur l'Au-Delá...
now before the public.