Melba Recordings

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A Lotus Blossoming

International Record Review (UK)
Michael Round

...The Zemlinsky – the lesser, though at 29 minutes, still a substantial work – is sensibly placed first. Forget the Lyric Symphony or Die Seejungfrau: at this stage Brahms is the prevailing influence. The Ensemble Liaison performance is excellent, persuasive and firmly cello-led; clarinettist David Griffiths remains resolutely unruffled and Timothy Young’s art-that-conceals-art pianism is a joy. The recording, in Melbourne’s 200-seater Iwaki Auditorium, is warm and clear...

The prison-camp genesis of Messiaen’s seminal Quatuor has passed into legend. By my reckoning, Ensemble Liaison’s is the 25th version currently available. Key discussion points follow, linked to those versions I happen to know best. The opening ‘Liturgie du cristal’ proceeds at three simultaneous dynamics, none louder than p; Liaison, keeping the piano well down, maintains the fragility this movement really needs. Myung-Whun Chung and colleagues (DG), here as elsewhere, start the second movement ‘Vocalise’ over-smoothly, especially given all those printed accents. Surprisingly (just here), so does Yvonne Loriod (EMI). The ‘impalpably’-marked strings-and-piano interlude builds and fades through carefully terraced dynamics, well observed by Liaison. Marie-Madeleine Petit’s unwritten accents on chord changes are mildly disruptive, and the strings verge on the touchy-feely (Warner Classics). The unaccompanied clarinet ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ is suitably desolate from all players and Griffiths is technically among the finest...

The following cello-and-piano ‘Louange’ articulates prison-camp captivity and despair probably better than any composer before or since. Odd, then, to learn that Messiaen was so able to remove himself (spiritually) from his circumstances as to declare that among all the prisoners in the camp, he was – mentally, at least – the only free man, and that this movement had already been composed long ago, forming the closing and most ethereal section of that much maligned but always listenable ondes-Martenot sextet Fête des belles eaux...Young’s accompanying piano tempo is impeccable: Loriod punctuates the slowly pulsating chords with tiny easing-ups that I find quietly irresistible. Liaison dispatches the hard-to-count sixth movement with aplomb, nearer to the printed metronome mark than Petit’s safety-first tempo yet avoiding Chung’s hectic scrambles as the piece speeds up. Griffiths’s well-mannered ‘bronzé, cuivré’ quasi-trumpetings perhaps need more of this movement title’s ‘fury’.

Liaison’s seventh movement starts with further cello portamenti though the treacherous fourth note is spot on; the following accented semiquavers are again played tenuto, rather diluting the implied menace. Young is best of all the pianists with the bottom-octave sff-p markings, difficult to articulate in this register. The final violin-and-piano ‘Louange’, famously recycled from Messiaen’s organ Diptyque, features paired piano chords, the second being seven times longer than the first. Chung slackens this ratio from 1:7 to 1:5; other pianists are mathematically more exact yet find the astonishingly slow speed (quaver=36) hard to maintain against the pull of the ultra-slow violin triplets. Even Loriod herself has unsteady moments; Petit hold fast until the last two (rushed) bars; Young outshines them all, with perfectly balanced second chords (audible but never obtrusive) and a phenomenally rock-steady pulse that I imagine few other pianists could match (over this eight-minutes-plus stretch) without the aid of a semiquaver click track...

If the current Melba coupling appeals...then Ensemble Liaison is a front-runner.