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Messiaen: Visions De L'amen; Debussy: En Blanc Et Noir / Van Raat, Austbo

Messiaen / Debussy / Van Raat / Austbo
Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572472   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Olivier MessiaenClaude Debussy
Performer:  Ralph van RaatHaakon Austbö
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DEBUSSY En Blanc et noir. MESSIAEN Visions de l’Amen Ralph van Raat, Håkon Austbø (pn) NAXOS 8572472 (62: 40)

I am slowly becoming a huge Ralph van Raat fan. Starting with his superb recording of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, I’ve reviewed two other recordings by him that have been absolutely glorious. This is yet another, a disc containing two Read more duo-piano works by modernist French composers writing in times of war—Debussy in 1915, Messiaen in 1943. I wonder at some of the dazzling piano runs in the first piece as being apropos to a wartime feeling, but of course Debussy was writing in general terms. It is in the second of the three pieces, a dark mood piece based on François Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France , that one hears the tolling of bells as an ominous and atonal, uncomfortable, intrusion on one’s mood, and then it runs through faster tempos in a paraphrase of A Mighty Fortress is Our God , the Lutheran hymn. Running bass passages, scalar as well as chromatic, add tension to the piece.

Messiaen also evokes bells in an uncomfortably tense manner in the opening movement of Visions de l’Amen, and they are continued in the second movement, “Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau.” Typical of Messiaen’s piano and organ works, however, the composer produces dark, congested, and, to my mind, evil-sounding music in “Amen du Désir,” but he lightens up the mood and produces an excellent piece in “Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux” (good old Messiaen and his birdcalls!). This latter piece has some very interesting running counterpoint in one place, and the final piece, “Amen de la Consommation,” is very upbeat and positive. The liner notes indicate that the expressive elements in the piece are given to the second piano while the first plays percussive, brilliant commentary. Overall I find the suite interesting if not truly great.

What is great, however, is the playing of van Raat and his piano partner, Håkon Austbø. They sound as one, produce glowing colors and sensitively shaped lines, and make as strong a case for both works as one could hope. There are, it seems, 34 recordings of En Blanc et noir available, of which the strongest competition (with the same pairing of the Messiaen piece) comes from Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal on Çedille 119 (praised in these pages by Jeremy Marchant) and Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy on Decca 1312902, but this one is less expensive and, to my mind, a better buy.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Visions de l'amen by Olivier Messiaen
Performer:  Ralph van Raat (Piano), Haakon Austbö (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; France 
En blanc et noir by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Ralph van Raat (Piano), Haakon Austbö (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; France 

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