Songs of Love and Death (Olivier Messiaen)

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano)
Cedric Tiberghien (piano)

                                                                Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Messiaen’s Songs of Love and Death is ideal festival fare. It is a towering masterpiece. But it is hardly ever heard ‘live’ outside the world’s more important music centres. At any one time, there would not be more than the merest handful of musicians able to cope meaningfully with its immense physical and interpretative demands. So there was a very real sense of occasion at this performance of the song cycle by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Cedric Tiberghien at Winthrop Hall. And those hardy souls who braved one of the hottest, steamiest days of the year to attend this lunch-time even were well rewarded. By even the most most stringent of critical criteria, Jeffers and Tiberghien gave us a recital to remember – and for all the right reasons.

This was Tiberghien’s first festival appearance – and he came through with flying colours. His command of the piano is phenomenal, his ability to adapt to even the subtlest aspects of Jeffers’ vocal line a source of wonder.
Becomingly gowned in pale turquoise, Jeffers, whose versatility is astonishing and who, in technical wizardry, could fairly be described as the vocal equivalent of a Vladimir Horowitz, steered a near-immaculate way, without any visible or audible strain, through one of the most ferociously difficult musical obstacle courses ever devised.

But if Messiaen’s epic is tough on musicians, it is no less so, in a different way, of course, on listeners. Songs of Love and Death is not easily absorbed, not the sort of work to relax to after a tough day at the office. Just as a crowd-scene painted by, say, Breughel, needs focussed attention to absorb its swarming detail with all the satisfaction that that entails, so, too, does Songs of Love and Death in its very different way, music profoundly influenced by the mediaeval legend of Tristan and Isolde, most widely known in Wagner’s operatic treatment of the story. But compared with the demands made on the listener by Messiaen’s work, Wagner’s opera, relatively speaking, is a walk-over because if, in Songs of Love and Death, focus is allowed to weaken (on the part of the listener), if attention is allowed to wander, the thread to can easily be lost and difficult to retrieve and the result can be bewildering rather than enlightening. But how rewarding this can be if the eye is kept on the ball, so to speak. This was an immensely satisfying performance.

Songs of Love and Death, written in 1945, has many of Messiaen’s musical fingerprints, such as fantastically clever notation of bird song which Tiberghien delineated faultlessly as his hands moved up and down the keyboard as nonchalantly as if dusting the furniture And with what confidence and brilliance of tone he played Messiaen’s trade-mark coruscations of notes, including note-clusters that so wonderfully suggest the glitter of stars, bursts of light or various states of ecstacy. And in Doundo tchil, the fourth of this cycle of twelve songs, the piano accompaniment sounds uncannily like the music of Debussy – and Tiberghien played it with all the authority and fluency one associates with Gieseking in his prime.

Jeffers was no less impressive in Montagnes, producing a stream of finely fashioned, velvet-smooth sound from the lower register of the vocal range. The text, incidentally, while mainly in French, also has lines in Quecha, an ancient South American language. Here, and throughout, Jeffer’s ability to focus on swarming, felicitous detail without losing sight of the cycle as an over-arching entity was hugely impressive. The same could certainly be said of Tiberghien who strikes me as the most superbly equipped of pianists interpreting Messiaen I have ever encountered since last hearing Thomas Rajna’s account of Vingt Regards, that other colossal Messiaen opus.

© 2004

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