Visions de l’Amen

Marilyn Nonken, Piano I
Sarah Rothenberg, Piano II

Bridge

In the spring of 1943, in the midst of the German occupation of Paris, Olivier Messiaen, assisted by his teenaged student Yvonne Loriod, presented a most unusual duo-piano recital. The times being what they were, there were undoubtedly a few Vichy collaborationists in the audience, taking down notes, alert to detect any evidence of sedition or rebellion (which might have been expected of one who had been conscripted in the Army of the Republic and spent some time in a POW camp following the downfall of France). If so, they were disappointed. For Messiaen’s music, as heard in Visions de l’Amen, already existed on a supernal plane that was totally alien to the fascist mind that can only believe in the realities it can compel other people to accept. And Messiaen was that rarest of creatures, one who would continually seek the spiritual truth and transcendant beauty in the dogmas of the Catholic faith.

Concerning “dogma”, which refers to any religious doctrine or belief that is not open to disputation (a notion that leaves a bad odor for many people), it needs to be said that Messiaen continually sought the mystical reality behind those dogmas. Without the existence of that reality, to someone like Messiaen, dogma is meaningless because it would then just boil down to the statement: “You must believe this because those of us who know what is good for you, say so.” Messiaen sought, and found, the spiritual realities he craved in his faith, and it informed his music almost from his eartliest beginnings as a composer.

One other thing you need to know about Messiaen is that he heard the most basic elements of music – such as color, harmony, rhythm, pitch, and time – in a markedly different way than the great majority of us do. With the assistance of Yvonne Loriod, his artistic collaborator, inspiration, and his eventually his wife, he explored new and breathtaking avenues in all these respects over a course of fifty years, until his death in 1992. Of Loriod, who herself died just recently on 17 May, 2010, he paid the highest tribute to her formidable piano technique: “I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible.”

On the present Bridge recording, Sarah Rothenberg, distinguished American pianist who studied Messiaen’s music in Paris with Loriod, and Marilyn Nonken, who has already established a reputation as a champion of modern music, give an enthusiastic and supernally skilled interpretation of what is certainly one of the greatest works of the modern era. There are seven movements in Visions de l’Amen, and they reflect aspects of the eternal Amen (“So Be It”) like facets of light show its component colors. They are: 1) Amen of Creation, 2) Amen of the Stars, the Planets, and the Rings of Saturn, 3) Amen of the Agony of Jesus, 4) Amen of Desire, 5) Amen of the Angels, the Saints, and Bird Songs, 6) Amen of Judgement, and 7) Amen of the Consummation. Unity is provided by the “Theme of the Creation, heard first in (1) and at various key points throughout the score, emphasizing the overall purpose and design of “L’Amen” itself. “Desire” in (4) refers to spiritual striving, expressed in themes representing deep tenderness and infinite patience, and “a paroxysm of thirst” (Messiaen), in the sense that the angel called the prophet Daniel “man of desire.“ The bird songs in (5) reflect Messiaen’s abiding interest in nature’s singers – here the Thrush, Chaffinch, and Blackcap – as voicing the purest praise to the Amen of Creation. As ornithologist and musician, he heard their songs with an unusual degree of sensitivity and incorporated them in his music to the end of his life.

The physical demands of Messiaen’s music must surely have required Rothenberg and Nonken to posses something of the technical skills and keen sensitivity to each other’s performance of a present-day Messian and Loriod. The composer’s pulsations, polyrhythms, and sudden changes of register, brilliant, scintillating rhythms and colors, culminate in the final movement as coruscating facets of light like “the whole rainbow of precious stones mentioned in the Apocalypse, sounding, jarring, dancing, coloring and perfuming the light of life” (Messiaen). (“Perfuming?” You’ve got me there, pal! But then, a mystic would understand these things.) Captured in beautiful, glorious-sounding detail by producer Judith Sherman and engineer Andrew Bradley, this has to be one of the very finest recordings of 2010. To those who might think it short measure at 48:53, I would say in closing that (a) what would you possibly program with Visions de l’Amen as a filler? And (b) you will probably want to audition this incredible music again once you’ve heard it, so that 49 minutes will soon become 98, then 147, and so on (Amen).

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