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 Recording of the Week  Olivier Messiaen

Although the actual centenary of Messiaen's birth doesn't fall until December, the celebrations seem well under way already, with many new discs out recently, and a lot of his music programmed for this year's Proms festival (which starts in just under two weeks). It therefore seems an appropriate moment to devote one of these editorials to him. (Karajan and Vaughan Williams will both have to wait a bit longer!)

Olivier Messiaen
Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was undoubtedly the most original and influential French composer since Debussy (whose music he is said to have very much admired). Indeed he is arguably one of the most original in all music history as, rather than fitting into any particularly ‘school’, he created his own compositional style and totally individual musical voice. He did this by creating his own 'modes of limited transposition', taking rhythmic ideas from Hindu and Greek origins and combining them with his love of nature, particularly bird song.

He was a very accomplished ornithologist and his research into bird song inspired much of his work, particularly his Catalogue d'Oiseaux. He also loved the mountains and I suppose this is also mirrored in his use of monolithic, almost architectural, blocks of sound.

If his love of nature is clearly audible within many of his composition, it was his devout Catholic faith that was often the inspiration for their creation. Many of his works amount to personal meditations on the mysteries of this faith, such as his Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus for solo piano, and his Le nativité du Seigneur for solo organ.

Messiaen's output is large and includes a substantial amount for both solo piano and for solo organ (he was the resident organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris from 1931 until his death in 1992). Suggesting a suitable place to start for someone new to his music is not straightforward, and I’d probably steer clear of the solo piano and organ works until familiar with the sound world. Instead, maybe head for the sombre Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, written while a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp, and his massive Turangalîla Symphony, which celebrates his appreciation of the vitality of life - two completely contrasting works, but undoubtedly two of his finest.

If you’re feeling bold, or already familiar with the music of this fabulous composer then now might be a good time to stock up as we’ve secured a very special price on the Messiaen Edition from Warner Classics which includes some of the finest recordings in the catalogue, many of them made by the composer's friends and pupils and even featuring the composer himself.