Those in the know have long held a deep respect and affection for Peter Hill’s groundbreaking recordings of Messiaen’s piano works, originally on the Unicorn-Kanchana label and now well worth having from Regis (a 7 CD set issued in 2002). Hill’s association with Delphian has already brought us some rather special Bach in the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1
and Book 2
A vehicle to present the newly discovered La Fauvette passerinette
by Olivier Messiaen, this release brings together piano works which are relevant to developments in his music up until 1961, when this piece was composed. These works by Messiaen are joined and surrounded by music from composers who, aside from Ravel and Dutilleux, were his students at various different times. All were influenced by him but embraced his insistence that they develop their individuality to the full.
The whole thing is a rather moving tribute to Messiaen, though the music is inevitably something of a mixed bag and listening on occasion has something of an exploratory feel. All are performed with great sensitivity and a profound sense of poetry, from Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes
to Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II
. A great deal of this music reflects resonances of nature and a creative line of awe and wonder, of which Messiaen’s utterances were some of the greatest from the last century. Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke
may for many be the moment where one feels this goes ‘all wrong’. However, listen carefully for the sympathetically resonating strings, relish the proportions of space between intervals and those intervals of silence, and you can perhaps begin to appreciate why these works fit in here so well. Filigree moments which almost suggest birdsong are also a factor in Julian Anderson’s extremely compact Etude No. 1
. Noted Messiaen student George Benjamin’s Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm
is both ruminative and rugged in its flexible, rather enigmatic design. Dutilleux shares musical ancestry with Messiaen, and his D’ombre et de silence
has mood echoes of the Ravel with which this programme opens. The pieces by Peter Sculthorpe and Douglas Young share the influence of gamelan sonorities, the latter’s more substantial River
more steeped in the tonalities of Debussy, extended in a feeling for drama which can erupt into the clamour of quasi-Russian bells. As a memorial, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire ...
is a natural and beautiful choice.
Messiaen enthusiasts are likely to dive straight for the previously unknown La Fauvette passerinette
and expectations are immediately rewarded with both instantly recognisable fingerprints and a feeling of freshness and discovery. In the booklet notes Hill describes how this draft score was found “in an advanced state of completion”, and how he was able to add missing dynamics from Messiaen’s birdsong notebooks. He outlines the new directions this work indicates after the great voyage of Catalogue d’oiseaux
during the 1950s. It seems a major new piano project was left aside for large-scale orchestral projects and never revived. Darkness, shafts of light, moments of luminous mystery, the sense of intense complexity related to the accessible breathing of nature are all features present in this work. It is played with Hill's irrepressible sense of joy and absolute authority. There is apparently a bank vault somewhere which may or may not reveal further hidden gems from Messiaen’s archive, but whatever the case Peter Hill’s discovery and scholarly revival of this work is worth every note of its eleven minutes.
With a beautiful recorded balance equally capturing the subtle colours and drama of both the music and Peter Hill’s performances, this is both a piano recording of demonstration quality and a musical experience to treasure. I’ve avoided comparing the various Messiaen works with Hill’s previous recordings. While there is no doubt a fascination in such minutiae it is more the concept of this programme as a whole as much as the nature of its individual elements which makes this release work in such a satisfying way.