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Messiaen: Visions De L'amen / Rothenberg, Nonken

Release Date: 04/13/2010 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9324   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Olivier Messiaen
Performer:  Sarah RothenbergMarilyn Nonken
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MESSIAEN Visions de l’Amen Marilyn Nonken, Sarah Rothenberg (pn) BRIDGE 9324 (48:53)

Yvonne Loriod, who died on May 17 this year, was a 20-year-old student of Messiaen’s when he composed his duo-piano work Visions de l’Amen in 1943 for the two of them to play. Messiaen subsequently wrote all his piano music for Loriod, including the great solo cycles Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus and Read more Catalogue d’oiseaux . The pair married in 1961, two years after the death of the composer’s first wife (who had been incapacitated for a long time).

Visions de l’Amen was the first major commission Messiaen received after his release from the Görlitz POW camp. It expanded the musical and metaphysical world he had created in the Quartet for the End of Time and set the scene for all his subsequent music, by creating impressions of the natural world as seen through a prism of spirituality defined by Roman Catholic dogma.

While Messiaen’s religious beliefs were fundamental to his inspiration, his musical influences range far wider than that would suggest. Birdsong even informs one movement of this work (“Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux”), though it is not the all-pervasive influence as it was to become from the mid 1950s onward. The work requires split-second ensemble, particularly in the many passages where the extreme registers of the pianos are sounding together, and it also demands a great degree of empathy between the two pianists if they are to succeed in re-creating the scale of Messiaen’s vision.

In this, the earliest work he wrote with Loriod’s prodigious technique in mind, Messiaen gave the pianistically tricky part to his brilliant pupil, and took the grander and more fulsome part himself. The best duos follow the same pattern: a lightning-fingered virtuoso, decorating the solemn chordal progressions of a solid yet sensitive anchor. One such stellar duo on disc is Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch; another is the great British pianist John Ogden with his wife Brenda Lucas, whose illuminating 1970 recording was reissued in 2006.

The team on this new recording may be placed confidently in that league. Marilyn Nonken is highly regarded as a champion of demanding contemporary music—perhaps best known to collectors for her performances of the dazzling piano etudes by American composer David Rakowski. Her partner, Sarah Rothenberg, also brings considerable experience as a soloist and, moreover, was once befriended by the composer and coached in his music by Loriod. That added authority ensures that matters of tempo and balance are finely judged.

I am not a big fan of resonance in recordings, but I think this one could have done with a little more. Messiaen’s metaphysical constructs need space. The pianos are well separated (not too much) and are in tune with each other, not something you can always count on. If there were a down side to this CD, it would be the 49-minute running time. I only mention this because another recording of the work has just appeared from Çedille, played by Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal, which adds a substantial encore in Debussy’s En blanc et noir . I don’t know if the Oppens/Lowenthal performance is newly recorded or a reissue; I have yet to hear it, but the names suggest it will be pretty good.

Make no mistake, however: Nonken and Rothenberg bring a razor-sharp response to a monumental opus that all lovers of the piano should have in their collections.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Visions de l'amen by Olivier Messiaen
Performer:  Sarah Rothenberg (Piano), Marilyn Nonken (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; France 

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