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Messiaen et autour de Messiaen for Onde Martenot and Piano

Messiaen et autour de Messiaen for Onde Martenot and Piano

by Nadia Ratsimandresy & Matteo Ramon Arevalos ; compositions by Olivier Messiaen, N’Guyen-Thien Dao, Jacques Charpentier and Tristan Murail
ReR Megacorp, Thornton Heath, Surrey, UK, 2009
CD, ReR OM1, £12.50
Distributor’s website: http://www.rermegacorp.com.

Reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Via dei Gracchi 285 00192 Rome (Italy)
Professor of Economics Università Europea di Roma


By coincidence, this rare recording of compositions by Messiaen and his school landed on my desk together with the book The Place Where You Go To Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music by John Luther Adams (which is reviewed separately). There many points in common between the record and the book, even though the record includes music composed between 1935 and 1975 (most of the compositions are of the 1940s) and John Luther Adams is a composer in his 50s still very active and in search of new acoustic solutions. Most likely, John Luther Adams is familiar with many works by Messiaen, especially with his opus magnum Saint François d’Assise because both of them are using the sound of natural elements (water, birds, wind in the forest or in the Alaskan fiords). Also, they share the search for new compositional techniques, including serial techniques, but are careful to never produced a contrived or unnatural effect. However , most probably, John Luther Adams was not aware of Messiaen ‘s and Messiaen’s disciples work with the onde Martenot.

The onde Martenot is named after its inventor, the engineer and cellist Maurice Martenot. As a radio telegrapher during World War One, he was struck by the purity of the sound produced by the valves which he worked with; consequently, he design an instrument which was first presented in 1928 during a concert at the Opéra in Paris. At the time, Messiaen and his schools were working on a new aesthetics for the Jeunesse de France. This involved going back to the roots of music (ancient Greek music, Gregorian chant) but also exploring new sounds, particularly very pure sounds that could be conjugated with those of the birds . Messiaen was also an experienced ornithologist who listened to the songs of birds in the most remote parts of the globe and wrote down their melodies. The onde Martenot seemed a perfect instrument for this task  but as its keyboard can produce only  one sound at the time, it needs to be played with other instruments (such as the piano and the prepared piano). A final word on the one Martenot: it can be considered as a precursor of live electronics. This is a sufficient reason to attract attention to this rare recording.

Of the seven tracks, four are Messiaen’s composition; those that are dated span from 1935 to 1941, but there also Feuillets Inédits, never published draft most probably composed around 1989 just before Messiaen’s death in 1992.This confirms the strong interest he had in the instrument, also because the pieces were found among the fragments of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux- a never completed catalogue of birdsongs. The tracks related to the early compositions are mostly études, experimentations of the potential of the onde Martenot. Of very great impact is the last track: an anthem to Jesus Christ composed in 1941 where the pulse of Messiaen’s religious mysticism is strongly felt.

The Suite Karmantique of Jacques Charpentier is an interesting exploration of India 72-modes microtonal music. Fascinating Bai Trap by N’Guyen-Thien Dao and Tigres de Verres by Tristan Murail. Both composed in the mid-1970s, they show the impact of the onde Martenot also on French contemporary music. The former is permeated by Vietnamese musical tradition. The latter by pure virtuoso. Together, they the timbral and sonic possibilities of the instrument.

Last Updated 8 March, 2010

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