Top albums of 2022: Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard tackle Messiaen with immense depth and ecstasy

Composed in Paris in the midst of the German Occupation in the winter of 1943, Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos is to be counted among the most resplendent musical works that emerged out of the bleakness of the war years. Commissioned by Denise Tual for Concerts de la Pléiade and premiered by the composer and Yvonne Loriod on 10 May 1943, Visions de l’Amen constitutes a tremendous forty-five-minute cycle in seven movements, conceived as meditations on various aspects of the Biblical idiom, from Creation to Judgment and, eventually, Consummation.

Although there are some impressive recordings of this monumental work found in its discography, most notably the 1962 account by Messiaen and Loriod, few, if any, of them quite catches the immense depth and ecstasy of the music as the scintillating new rendition by Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Pentatone.

Recorded at the Stefaniensaal in Graz, Austria in July 2021, Visions finds the duo Stefanovich-Aimard at their finest, in a performance of utmost commitment and dazzling craft, yielding to veritable musical credo, one to shake the heavens and move the earth.

In summoning the score into being, the two pianists are required not only to interlock at several layers of rhythm, harmony and melody, but also share a vision, which goes way beyond the music itself, into some metaphysical realm, where sonorities, words and images are merged into one unifying entity of expression. Thus, as resoundingly demonstrated by Stefanovich and Aimard, Visions de l’Amen becomes a vessel of something truly extraordinary and profoundly human.

In examining the music, one is to encounter a cascade of those key ingredients of the Messiaenic idiom, from ingenious rhythmic permutations to sounding evocations of angelic beings and their manifestations in celestial bodies, not forgetting the birdsong, forged together into astonishing sounding sequences, each echoed in living memory long after the last echoes of the thundering closing chords have evaporated into silence, hallowed by the astounding keyboard ritual.

Recurring thematic ideas play substantial roles in achieving musical unity across the seven Visions. Among these, the single most notable sonic kernel appears in the guise of a Creation theme, introduced by the second piano in the low registers of the opening carillon, Amen de la Création (Amen of Creation). A wondrous soundscape of bells evoked on keyboards, the movement is a mesmerizing affair.

Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau (Amen of stars, of the ringed planet) picks up speed and rhythmic shape, presenting us with cosmic vision of the formidable realms of Creation. True to its title, the ensuing Amen de l’agonie de Jésus (Amen of Jesus’ agony) takes its cue from the core archetypes of the Christian faith, yielding to gripping repetitions and gradual transformations of its core material. Rounding off with a poignant postlude, the movement is one of remarkable intensity.

Clocking at eleven minutes, Messiaen’s chosen centerpiece, Amen du Désir (Amen of desire) is the most extended of the seven. Here, the composer sets out to deliver an absolutely riveting array of musical exaltation, conjuring a panorama of sonorous dreamscapes from the ecclesiastic to the dance hall. Taking wing, the music then leaves the Earth and becomes transported into the realm of angels and saints, accompanied by birdsong in Amen des Anges, des Saints, du chant des oiseaux. Clad in sounds of opens spaces, the movement is pure vividness.

An evocation of the apocalypse, no less, is heard in the brief Amen du Jugement (Amen of judgment), priming us for the tremendous finale, Amen de la Consommation (Amen of consummation). The Creation theme returns, getting its full workout in the course of extensive repetition, resulting in sonic development of special magnificence. Transfigured, the music is deployed into spaces physical and metaphysical alike, invigorating both the body and the soul.

A superlative performance beautifully engineered, the disc account by Stefanovich and Aimard constitutes a cornerstone in the Messiaen discography. A journey like few others, Visions de l’Amen presents us with the art of recording at its very finest.

Following up the lead of bell sounds, the album features three extraordinary solo piano encores. Pre-echoes of Visions are heard in George Enescu’s captivating Carillon Nocturne (1916), the closing movement from his Piano Suite No. 3, Op. 18 Pièces impromptues (1913-16). A timeless night-piece, the six-minute miniature is given in beautiful outing by Aimard.

The ensuing Prayer Bell Sktech, Op. 29 (1997) by Oliver Knussen is a musical memorial for Toru Takemitsu. Based on relatively simple array of bell-like chords, the seven-minute piece constitutes a touching farewell; musical intimacy without any superficial sentimentality. A sublime performance from Stefanovich, the piece is an absolute gem.

Concluding with a sonic thunderstorm par excellence Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Clock IV from Harrison’s Clocks (1997-98) is a celebration of organic machinery; a concept perhaps only conceivable in music. A study of clusters and dynamics, the four-minute tour-de-force workout from Aimard closes the album with virtuoso festivity.

Tamara Stefanovich, piano

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano

Olivier Messiaen: Visions de l’Amen (1943) for two pianos

George Enescu: Carillon Nocturne (1916) from Piano Suite No. 3, Op. 18 ”Pièces impromptues” (1913-16)

Oliver Knussen: Prayer Bell Sketch, Op. 29 (1997) for solo piano

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Clock IV from ”Harrison’s Clocks” (1997-98) for piano solo

Recorded in July 2021 at the Stefaniensaal, Congress Graz, Austria

Pentatone PTC5186957 (2022), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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