Two impressive Messiaen concerts at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Oxford Lieder Festival 2019 [4] – Messiaen: (CR)

(1) Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva (pianos). Holywell Music Room, Oxford 25.10.2019

Messiaen Visions de l’Amen

Although not a song recital, this afternoon performance of Messiaen’s 1943 cycle for two pianos served as the prelude to the late-night recital of Harawi on the same evening. Even by the rarefied standards of many of the composer’s theological-musical musings, this seven movement sequence is, in conception, particularly abstract, as Messiaen engaged with the different meanings of ‘Amen’, prompted by the writings of the theologian Ernest Hello.

Despite that, and the confined space of the Holywell Music Room, Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva gave a muscular performance of the work which vividly projected such movements as the opening ‘Amen de la Création’, and the fearful opening of the third ‘Amen de l’agonie de Jésus’ with its monumental tumble of chords cascading downwards by tritone leaps. Some contrast was drawn with the dreamy fourth movement, the ‘Amen du Désir’, in which Apekisheva developed the principal theme liltingly, and drawing a broad but ecstatic climax with Owen, before settling down again.

Other passages throughout the cycle could have created a more mystical or other-worldly atmosphere to bring out its spiritual dimensions. But no criticism can be levelled at the sense of joy and abandon consistently brought out in the music – which, for better or worse, can rarely said to be subtle – by both performers, especially the glinting, high-register clusters executed by Owen, unperturbed by the bolder and more resolute sequences given out lower down by Apekisheva on the second piano. They pushed on to a coruscating conclusion in the final ‘Amen de la Consommation’, with its repeated syncopated motifs adding additional rhythmic impetus. In essence this was an infectiously exuberant realisation of Messiaen’s life-affirmation utterance, just as he surely meant to express during the depths of the Second World War.

(2) Gweneth Ann Rand (soprano), Simon Lepper (piano). St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 25.10.2019


This late-night performance constituted a stimulating follow-up to the Oxford Lieder Festival’s main recital on the same day, in which Dorothea Röschmann had ended with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder (review click here), two of which relate to the music drama Tristan und Isolde which he was working on at the same time. Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi (1945) took that theme forwards as the first of three works by him which engages with that Arthurian legend, although he also took inspiration from an eponymous Peruvian song in which the constituent lovers are united in death, providing a suggestive parallel. The native Quecha culture of Peru also inspired Messiaen in the surreal and symbolic texts he wrote himself, as he added various onomatopoeic sounds to enrich the poems, most conspicuously in the fourth song ‘Doundou tchil’.

Gweneth Ann Rand rose to the challenge of this virtuosic and eclectic cycle magnificently, the extrovert declamations, and wildly varied music sounding entirely natural and unself-conscious in her interpretation. She set a moody, vibrato-laden tone for the first song, but then marked off each subsequent movement with an idiomatic colour or register as appropriate, for example, meeting the ‘doundou tchil’ exclamations of that song with breathless excitement, and the repeated ‘pias’ of ‘Syllabes’ with bird-like and musical alacrity; ‘Répétition planétaire’ delivered like a tearful, almost whining incantation; and ‘Adieu’ made solemn and even threatening in its regretful mood.

She was partnered expertly by Simon Lepper at the piano, ably demonstrating Messiaen’s comment that the instrument is more orchestral than the orchestra. From the percussive and bold chordal textures of the more extrovert and energetic songs, to the gently caressed amorous soliloquies, he coaxed a rich array of sonorities from the piano to characterise one of Messiaen’s most sensuous scores. The softer passages were especially evocative, such as the swirling chords of the opening song ‘La ville qui dormait, toi’ which seemed to cross the synaesthetic boundaries to become almost fragrant, whilst the tender, twinkling flourishes over delicately held chords for ‘Amour oiseau d’étoile’ looked ahead to the mystical love-song ‘Jardin du Sommeil d’amour’ of the composer’s next Tristan-inspired composition, the Turangalîla-symphonie.

Despite the work seeming sometimes more like a cycle for piano with the accompaniment of voice – so busy and tumultuous is the instrumental part, particularly in ‘Montagnes’ where the voice interjects short phrases between the piano’s longer discourses – Lepper and Ann Rand maintained an equal footing throughout the performance in terms of balance, control, and overall effect. Not the least impressive part of their achievement was to make the composition sound far easier and familiar than its complexities and exoticisms are in fact. More Messiaen from them would be very welcome, either together or singly.

Curtis Rogers