Tuesday's concert didn't get off to the most promising start for me. Soprano Christiane Oelze seemed to have have a rather plain voice with a piercing vibrato at high volumes and some rather rough edges lower down. Her diction was generally fine, but midline she often seemed to blur words together. As such, her performances of Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben and Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis left me rather cold, despite Pierre-Laurent Aimard's delicate, sensitive and beautifully played accompaniment. They were further not helped by the fact that something strange seemed to be happening to the notes on the piano when Aimard released the sustaining peddle.
After the interval, though, everything changed. They returned to the stage to perform Messiaen's Harawi - Chant d'amour et de mort. In the first place it seemed a far better fit for Oelze's voice, and any of those rough edges were rarely noticeable. She also found plenty of the drama and had fun with the phonic words. It is a taxing cycle, to say the least, ranging from frenzy of Staircase retold, gestures of the sun, to sublime beauty elsewhere, to nonsense and wit, and lasting about an hour, yet she showed no signs of tiring.
Aimard proved himself an exceptional interpreter of Messiaen, especially with the birdsong motifs so common in the composer's work, nowhere more so than during Good morrow, green dove.
It also helped, of course, that I prefer Messiaen's poetry to that set by Debussy and Schumann, not to mention that he was setting his own words. But whatever the reason, as with all Messiaen's great works, it was a profound and compelling experience. Also impressive is the degree to which the richness of colour and texture which make his big orchestral works so special was present with just piano and voice.
What a pity Aimard was not yet festival director in 2008 when Messiaen had his centenary - what a treat of the composer's piano music we might have had. It is to be hoped that in the coming years Aimard finds space to seriously celebrate his works. It would be wonderful to have complete performances of the Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Visions de l'Amen or Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus.
The concert is slated for broadcast on Radio 3 on 29 June in the lunchtime concert slot. Once again the slot is smaller than the concert but it seems they have had the sense to pick the Messiaen.
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