Olivier Messiaen: Birds Like You've Never Heard Before

There is music so unique, so colorful, and so potentially challenging for the casual listener that words like "pretty" or "entertaining" go flying out the window. Such is the case with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard's mind-boggling recording of Olivier Messiaen's (1908–1992) Catalogue d'Oiseaux. Anything but background music for a relaxed evening by the fire or in the hot tub, the Catalogue consists of 13 extended odes for solo piano, each of which was inspired by a different bird species. Recorded by Pentatone in 24/96 hi-rez stereo and surround in the famous Saal 1, Funkhaus, Nalepastrasse, Berlin, and issued as a three-disc SACD set (PTC 5186 670), the box includes a bonus DVD on which Aimard, a professor at the Hochschule Köln, discusses the pieces at length and offers insights into Messiaen the man and composer.

Messiaen wrote the Catalogue between 1956 and 1958 for his future wife, Yvonne Loriod, with whom Aimard studied at the Conservatoire de Paris when he was a teenager. Given that Aimard also won first prize in the 1973 Messiaen Competition at the age of 16, and has made a specialty of 20th century music, his recording can be seen as but one generational step away from Loriod's own Catalogue d'Oiseaux.

The recording is astounding for the degree of concentration and intensity Aimard devotes to Messiaen's avian odes. This does not mean, however, that it is an easy ride. Given that Aimard, as evidenced by his appearance in the 2009 movie, Pianomania, is anything but a laid-back, go-with-the-flow individual, it seems fitting that his bird proclaim themselves in forte, double forte, and fortissimo tones. Aimard's birds are so dominant, and so insistent that their territory is their territory, that I would be hesitant to fly a small plane through their airspace.

Messiaen's compositions are far more than simple transcriptions of the bird songs that he meticulously notated in various regions of France or encountered through field recordings. "I have tried to render exactly the typical birdsong of a region, surrounded by its neighbors from the same habitat, as well as the form of song at different hours of the day and night," he told Claude Samuel, author of Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color Conversations with Claude Samuel. The birdsongs are "accompanied in the harmonic and rhythmic material by the perfumes and colors of the landscape in which the bird lives."

The compositions also reflect changes to bird calls as the hours, sun, and moon shift, or the bird moves from one environment to the other. In addition, because birds can sing faster than humans can play, in higher octaves, and employ microtonal shadings that are impossible to replicate on instruments such as the piano, Messiaen grants himself an extra high degree of poetic license. Voiced in his extraordinary, ultra-modernistic color palette, Catalogue d'Oiseaux is a unique collection of poetic sounds in which nature and mind meld in extraordinary, virtually indescribable union.

Perhaps it's best to let Messiaen's prefaces to each bird, which were included in the first edition of the score, give you a clearer idea of what you will encounter. Here, for example, is his preface to III. Le Merle bleu—The Blue Rock Thrush

June in the Roussillon, the Côte Vermeille. Near Banyuls; Cap l'Abeille and Cap Rederis. Overhanging cliffs above a sea of Prussian blue and sapphire blue. The cries of the Common Swifts, the lapping water. The capes stretch out into the sea like crocodiles. In a rocky crevice with an echo, the Blue Rock Thrust sings. Its blue is different from that of the sea, purpleish-blue, slate-blue, satin, blue-black. Almost exotic, it recalls the music of Bali, its song mingling with the sound of the waves. We also hear the Thekla Lark which flutters in the sky above the vineyards and the rosemary bushes. In the distance, Herring Gulls cry out above the sea. The cliffs are terrifying. The water seems to die at their feet in memory of the Blue Rock Thrush.

Messiaen is not afraid to take his time. When everything gets going at once, as it does in the extended (31:37) ode to The Reed Warbler (La Rousserolle Effarvatte), the results are astounding.

Another recording by Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie, L'Ascension, actually made it onto our 2014 Records to Die For." In his description of the Turangalîla Symphony, Robert Levine wrote, "Messiaen's sound world is as odd as the spelling of his name; clusters of sound practically attack the listener, [and] keep the ear in a constant bath of wonderment." Although the symphony makes use of a huge orchestra, including an unusual percussion section, Levine's words are equally applicable to Catalogue d'Oiseaux for solo piano.

Some will consider Aimard's achievement a main course; others will want to savor it slowly, like a dessert wine, one bird at a time. Even if this recording does not replace Chopin on your shelf, let alone the music by Radiohead that reflects Messiaen's championship of the electronic instrument, l'ondes martenot, Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux must be heard.

ok's picture

..art lets beings be; anyone ever been stunned by Tarkovky’s Solaris first seconds knows what Messiaen’s music is all about.

cgh's picture

I was introduced to Messiaen via Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which has bird sounds. Imagining what it as like to compose and perform this work while a prisoner of war inStalag VIII, borrowing what instruments they could find, performing for the guards, the conditions, is just almost beyond comprehension.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Another great recommendation by JVS ........... JVS, could you please review Pine and Vinikour recording of Bach: Sonatas for violin & Harpsichord? ......... It sounds great ........... It sounds great for headphone-o-phile or loudspeaker-o-phile or both ............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

has already been written by you. Thank you. I prefer not to do two reviews of music by the same composer so close together.

If memory serves, David Chesky told me that Rachel Barton Pine recently played his violin concerto superbly.

dalethorn's picture

If you should get a chance to do a mini-review of the RBP album, it would be great to have a comparison of the commentary in her video to what you hear in the Bach sonatas. It's way beyond my music education level. In the meantime I'm following Jason's Radiohead link...

dalethorn's picture

Great cover photo.

Herb Reichert's picture

I am captivated and inspired by one of your recommendations. Thank you Jason.

hb72's picture

Same here! Very grateful