The Catalogue d’Oiseaux marks the pinnacle of Messiaen’s fascination with birds; yes, they would continue to appear in subsequent works, but never again on the scale of this work. In fact, it was not until the composer was in his 40’s that everything ornithological would manifest itself in this startlingly original and unique work. This seven-book cycle of piano pieces ‘catalogues’ the songs of seventy-seven distinct birds. Messiaen composed these fascinating pieces as a result of his travels, with each of the pieces not only depicting a specific bird, but also other aspects of the natural world of a specific French geographic region or département.
This can be seen in the composer’s depiction of the Alpine Chough in the first piece, in which he not only presents the bird, but also the mountainous terrain it inhabits and the wildlife it shares its home with. Here we get not only the dissonant call of the chough, but also that of another corvid, the raven, which shares this piece; there are also prolonged silences as if to highlight the intervals between the calls of the birds. Messiaen is an expert at highlighting contrasts, something he does throughout this work, as can be seen in his ‘Le Loriot’ (which is also a pun on his wife Yvonne Loriod’s name), with the repetitive song of the Golden Oriole; this piece is one of the most virtuosic of the thirteen pieces. The final piece in Book 1 depicts the joyous song of the ‘Le Merle bleu’; this piece takes us to the coastal area of the Eastern Pyrenees, with the Blue Rock Thrush having to share the limelight with the Thekla Larks.
The second book, as with the fourth and sixth, contains just one piece, indeed this can be seen as an almost cyclical work with the pieces being arranged so that the books seem to pivot around Book 4, with the pieces arranged so that they form a 3-1-2-1-2-1-3 cycle of pieces per book. The song of the Black-eared Wheatear is portrayed from sunrise to sunset along with various buntings, larks, ravens and the gold finch, the song of which I can hear through the window as I type. In Book 4, although the Reed Warbler is the named bird depicted in this day- long portrayal, we get songs from many more birds including a skylark as well as insects and the nocturnal music of the marshy area with its frogs. This is the longest, and in many ways the best of the pieces, the many different calls and songs making it the most diverse and interesting. Book 6 gives also gives us a springtime nocturnal setting, this time with the Rock Thrush. Again, this piece is marked by silences which are broken, not only by the calls of the thrush, but also by those of the eagle owl, jackdaw and the black redstart.
Book 3 gives us two contrasting pieces depicting night; the first gives us the terrifying depiction of a wood close to Paris with the calls of the Tawny Owl out on the prowl, along with the calls of the little owl and the Long-eared owl; the second is a much calmer affair with the song of the woodlark in the calm of the evening, with the song of the nightingale in the distance. Book 5 opens with the shortest of the thirteen pieces, depicting the Short-toed Lark, it recalls ‘Le Loriot’ in the way that it depicts the song of the lark as well as the quail and the two toed larks. The Book concludes with a depiction of a river in western France, with the sounds of the water interspersed with the call of Cetti’s Warbler, along with the songs of blackbirds, sand martins and the kingfisher.
The final three pieces make up Book 7 and add to the cyclical feel of the work by presenting birdsong that is similar to those from the earlier books. The first presents the buzzard with its cries as it saws over the refrains of the chaffinch and the yellowhammer in ‘La Buse variable’. The call of the Black Wheatear is set against that of the blue rock thrush in ‘La Traquet rieur’. The scene changes to the seashore in the final piece ‘Courlis cendre’; here the plaintive calls of the Curlew are pitted against those of other strand dwellers such as the redshank, the turnstone and the black-headed gull.
Throughout the cycle Messiaen produces richly intricate music that should be listened to actively – do something else whilst you listen, and you miss out on aspects of the music. This is where Ciro Longobardi does well, his performance makes you listen, through its diverse use of dynamics and the expert use of silences. His playing is concise and bright and is best listened to with the accompanying booklet, in which his notes on the music expertly set the scene. It is a long time since I listened to Yvonne Loriod’s recording of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux, so I cannot make a comparison with the premiere artist. However, in comparison with the recording of Anatol Ugorski for DG (474 3452), this somewhat quicker interpretation stands up well, with Ugorski sounding a little too relaxed now, especially when compared with the wonderful performance of Pierre-Laurent Aimard (PTC5186670). For me personally, Aimard would be my preferred recording, he has the knack of sounding relaxed even when the music is not, but this new performance from Longobardi is not far behind, he is confident in the more challenging parts whilst as already stated his use of dynamics in the slower, quieter passages, as well as his adherence to the silences is excellent. The recorded piano sound is very good, whilst the booklet notes set the scene well, making this a worthy alternative to the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording.
Contents Disc 1 [57:35]
No. 1. Le Chocard des Alpes (Alpine Chough) [7:53]
No. 2. Le Loriot (Golden Oriole) [8:07]
No. 3. Le Merle bleu (Blue Rock Thrush) [12:51]
No. 4. Le Traquet Stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear) [14:00]
No. 5. La Chouette Hulotte (Tawny Owl) [7:25]
No. 6. L'Alouette-lulu (Wood Lark) [6:47] Disc 2 [44:40]
No. 7. La Rousserolle Effarvatte (Reed Warbler) [28:49]
No. 8. L'Alouette Calandrelle (Short-toed Lark) [5:15]
No. 9. La Bouscarle (Cetti's Warbler) [10:20] Disc 3 [46:43]
No. 10. Le Merle de roche (Rock Thrush) [18:14]
No. 11. La Buse variable (Buzzard) [9:46]
No. 12. La Traquet rieur (Black Wheatear) [8:30]
No. 13. Le Courlis cendre (Curlew) [10:03]
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