His own man


Elisabeth Sellars and Kenji Fujimura

Move Records MD 3369

Messiaen Nexus

Like many celebrated composers, Messiaen served as a nodal point, but not in establishing his own school, nor in being part of a substantial movement.  He stands out in the ranks of 20th century composers as a complete individual, even on a superficial level, for combining so many elements that other writers avoided or simply could not use.  The point of this CD is to indicate where Messiaen came from – although this retrospective glance is pretty frail – and the fruits of his pedagogic labours, which were legendary, in works by his students.

Elisabeth Sellars and Kenji Fujimura, colleagues in the Faculty of Music at Monash University, are long-time duo partners and this collection of seven works furthers their reputation as exemplary duo-artists.   As you’d expect, Messiaen is represented: first, by the solo piano Piece pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas of 1935, and, in the last track, by the Fantaisie for violin and piano, written in 1933 but not published until 2007.

But the disc begins with a violin/piano Sonata by George Benjamin, the British composer who studied with Messiaen and reputedly was the French master’s favourite pupil; mind you, Benjamin was very young at the time and the first movement of this work was finished at about the time that he began his studies with Messiaen..  Another pupil, Gyorgy Kurtag, is represented by Tre Pezzi from 1979 and some pieces from the solo violin collection Signs, Games and Messages, generally brief in length; the elements for this instrument’s version assembled from 1989 to 2004.  At the recording’s centre stands Anthemes for violin solo by Boulez, a late work from 1991 that was, typically, later revised to include electronics as part of the sound-mix.

Benjamin’s sonata, the most substantial work on this CD, has a unique vocabulary.  It begins with pointillist dollops of piano notes over which the violin stretches a long melodic line.  The pace is slow, hieratic, and you can hear Messiaenic trace-elements in the repetitions of both lines and the occasional suggestion of a mode or two in the keyboard writing.  In the movement’s central pages, where the ambience tends toward a Bartok brutality, the instrumental dialogue verges on the obsessive, especially in the piano’s sometimes clangorous writing.   In fact, the more you listen, the more teacher references you pick up, like the Quartet for the end of time tenor of the movement’s conclusion.

The quicker middle movement involves more under-the-lid work and a good deal of nervous ostinati, the whole heavy on effects; like his master, Benjamin is not concerned about unexpected referents that may occur to the listener, like the dance-hall suggestions that pop up, especially from some sinuous violin curvetting.  But the segment ends in a set of frenetic yet organized pages where the excitement level rises but you are aware of a mind in control of the ferment. The finale  is slow-paced, both more mellow than its opening counterpart and more dramatic in its gestures.   Again, you can find the influence of Messiaen in the slow-paced final peroration which, rather than ending in beatitude as the master would, finishes in a state of unresolved meditativeness.

Dukas, whose The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Fanfare for the ballet La Peri are all that survive in the concert hall, taught Messiaen – as well as an honour roll of other European composers.   He was invited, like Ravel and Debussy, by the Societe Internationale de Musique in 1910 to write a work using Haydn’s name as inspiration – well, a jumping-off point; the Prelude elegiaque was the result, three somewhat desultory pages that begin and end in harmonic stacks, if suitably placid in character, with a more ornate middle moment.   If you want, you can find in the piece’s sustained and wide-ranging chords a precedent for something like the final movement of L’ascension – or not.   Fujimura’s reading is calm, the chords carefully splayed although the final bars fail to register fully on my equipment.

Kurtag’s Tre Pezzi are brief, making their respective statements without much by way of development.   Od und traurig lives up to its name, notable for deliberately off-kilter violin sustained notes that suggest depression and desolation; Vivo has both instruments moving more rapidly in a suggested march-rhythm, but the forward propulsion is interrupted by pauses and you hear few moments of full-bodied sound; Aus der Ferne sits for some of its length close to inaudibility, out-Weberning Webern with the violin playing simple diatonic sequences, the piano interpolating occasional punctuation marks as a  background.  Where this fits into the CD’s nexus musically speaking is hard to see.

Much the same could be said of the Boulez Anthemes, four pages packed with difficulties for any performer; just getting the improbably detailed expression markings correct presents Sellars with a huge task which she carries out with sense.  If the distinction between her piano and pianissimo delivery in bar 65 on alternate up and down bows is vague, who can blame her?   The work has a wealth of detail, superlatively organized and suited to the instrument’s potential.   But the time-changes, abrupt differentiations in modes of sound-production, flow-disrupting demi-semiquaver gruppetti, massively taxing quadruple stops – all combine to focus your attention on the instrumental timbre, rather than the intended sequence between initial and of verse  – as in the Tudor Lamentations settings – that prompted the composer.   A pity, as this is one of the few Boulez pieces I’m aware of that has any connection to religious inspiration and a less distracting environment might have revealed a sensibility that is masked with virtuosity in most of the composer’s greatest scores.  His teacher based the greater part of his oeuvre on his emphatically expressed faith although he didn’t write much that could be comfortably shaped to fit any liturgies, apart from those in his own head.

Messiaen’s tribute to Dukas may be an early work but it speaks the composer’s tongue eloquently, using one of his own modes of limited transposition and proceeding in a processional pace, albeit one with no allowance for regularity of step.   If anything, the work is triumphant in impact, without virtuosic demands except to get the fingers across those massive chord chains that resolve onto a dominant seventh; well, Messiaen says so although the key chord seems to me to be something else entirely.   Fujimura gives the piece plenty of space to make its celebratory statements with firm amplitude.

The four pieces from Signs, Games and Messages present few problems to Sellars.  The first, Doloroso, is a plaint that passes all too rapidly; Postcard to Anna Keller was written on the day of the dedicatee’s birth and is buoyant, optimistic and folksy in a strident fashion; Calmo-Sognando is an In memoriam for an old school-friend that expresses a masculine, mobile regret despite all the tapering away of its final phrase; the In nomine – all’ongherese begins with a stern one-line motive – and stays with it, the atmosphere growing more and more nationalistic as the short work proceeds.   In all, an intriguing bracket of works but the links to this CD’s nodal point seem tenuous.

Finally, Messiaen’s Fantaisie begins with a piano statement familiar to most organists: the opening recitative to the Alleluias sereins d’une ame qui desire le ciel, the second movement of L’ascension.  This angular proclamation recurs later in duo form with both players in unison, further on with a vitally contrasting piano support, and in a truncated form at the work’s final flourishes.   In between come interludes that are both sweet bordering on saccharine and drivingly active; it may be a young man’s work but it is already idiosyncratic and totally inimitable.

Which brings us back to the disc’s title.  It is probably the best term to describe the performers’ attempt; what they have contributed is a brief tour of voices that spring out of the Messiaen fulcrum.  Expecting them all to share a commonality of expression is to look for connections and links that are either not there or have been assuaged by individual development.

Mind you, the master might have been a wonder in the seminar room but he could also be a curmudgeon.  A one-time colleague, Anna King-Murdoch, accompanied Messiaen to the Dandenongs during one of his rare visits here; the composer was, as usual, wanting to transcribe some native bird song.  He’d heard of the lyrebird but never experienced its mimicking ability live.   The small party crept close to where one of the species was carolling when Anna stood on a stick, which broke.   Also broken (off) was the lyrebird’s song, not to be heard again    Messiaen was angry, as you might have expected.  But then, what sort of song-collector goes into the bush accompanied by a retinue that includes a journalist and photographer?

As ever, the music is what matters and the Sellars+Fujimura duet gives a fine airing of the Fantaisie and Benjamin’s self-possessed Sonata.  If you are left, like I am, wondering about the Kurtag brevities and their place in this Messiaen-infused collation, you can simply enjoy them for their own sakes, admiring the control and aplomb with which they are delivered.

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