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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sancta Dorothea, S.187 (1877) [3:08]
St. François d’Assise: La Prédication aux oiseaux; Two Légendes, No.1; S.175 (1863) [9:36]
St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots: Two Légendes, No.2; S.175 (1863) [8:07]
Consolations, S.172 (1844-50) [17:01]
Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro, S.208 (1881) [5:21]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Petites Esquisses d ‘oiseaux (1985) [15:02]
Cantéyodjayâ (1949) [11:55]
Fredrik Ullén (piano)
rec. April and June 2009, Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm
BIS-CD-1803 [72:15]

This inventive coupling has little precedent in my experience. A link between Liszt and Messiaen is Catholicism — Liszt was a lay brother in the Franciscan Order. Fredrik Ullén pursues in this conjunction of the two composers not so much a correspondence, but more a thread of associations and convictions. This may not be enough to convince some of the relevance of the programming, but it is a concept that compels admiration for its daring alone.
He plays Messiaen’s Petites Esquisses d‘oiseaux, alternating them (singly or in pairs) with a work by Liszt, principally the Consolations, though he begins the recital with Sancta Dorothea, S.187 and the first of the Légendes, and ending it with the second. His Messiaen is formidably articulate and technically alert. He has a superb ear for incisive colour and for the particularities of tonal gradation. His programming also possesses logic of its own. It’s interesting how, say, the juxtaposition of Liszt’s First Consolation and Messiaen’s second Petites Esquisses seems to shed light one or the other. It was clever, too, to follow Liszt’s extraordinary, death-gripped and often cataclysmic Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro with the French composer’s Cantéyodjayâ, a work that picks up on, as it were, the former’s barely controlled intensity and presents some galvanic, cataclysmic intensity of its own.
Mysticism, religion and birdsong are ever-present. In terms of specifics of tone colour and sound, the effect is often quite taut and hard, sometimes in Liszt as well as Messiaen. The percussive imperative in the latter composer’s work is dispatched with super-articulacy and formidable precision. His playing of the Consolations is sensitive and often beautifully sculpted; the third and fourth, paired, is a particularly successful example both of contrasts and touching gravity. Sometimes, perhaps, his accenting imperatives in St. François d’Assise: La Prédication aux oiseaux might be thought to be too unyielding, lending the music a rather brittle sonority.
Nevertheless this disc, which wears its concept lightly, offers much thought-provoking pianism. It also alerts us to a conjunction that argues for consonance and lineage in ways that are never pursued beyond the bounds of good musical or historical taste. Beautifully recorded, as ever, from BIS.
Jonathan Woolf