Tag Archives: PIAF

Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

A centenary tribute

by Neville Cohn






Many composers have been inspired by birds, whether through their song or flight. The latter is typified by Vaughan Williams’ sublimely beautiful The Lark Ascending. And the call of the cuckoo is instantly recognisable in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Think, too, of Schubert’s ecstatic song “Hark, hark the Lark” to words by Shakespeare. But it was Olivier Messiaen above all who found often white hot inspiration in bird song. He was an amateur ornithologist with a huge knowledge of bird life.


His excruciatingly difficult Catalogue d’Oiseaux (which Michael Kieran Harvey will play for PIAF in February) is testament to the finesse he brought to the job of painstakingly notating birdsong from many regions in France. He wrote it while his first wife, seriously ill, languished in hospital for 12 years before dying in 1959.

Messiaen  said that during this time, birdsong was a refuge to which he turned again and again, “in my darkest hours, when my uselessness is brutally revealed to me”.


Happier times were to come when he and his second wife Yvonne Loriod (for whom Messiaen wrote some of his greatest works) became a familiar site around France – and to a much lesser extent in Japan, Israel, North and South America.


Loriod, Messiaen’s muse, with tape recorder at the ready, the composer with paper and pencil, erasers and note books as well as binoculars, worked indefatigably to capture on paper the subtlest nuances of each bird’s cry and call.


More often than not, Messiaen’s piano music is excruciatingly  difficult. And while the composer was a fair pianist, he knew his technique was simply not up to the demands of his own compositions. Little Olivier taught himself to play on a broken down instrument belonging to an uncle. Then and throughout his life, he said, that he “knew, instinctively, that anything he might ever compose needed to be interesting (and) beautiful to listen to, to touch the listener”.


Instead of toys as gifts at Xmas, little Olivier preferred by far, presents of orchestral scores which he would read in bed with as much enthusiasm and focus as another child might read a Superman or Bugs Bunny comic. In this, he was similar to Benjamin Britten as a child.


On his 10th birthday, one of little Olivier’s teachers gave the child a score of Debussy’s opera Pelleas and Melisande which was, the composer recalled, “a revelation  – probably the most decisive influence of my life – it had never been listened to with such attention.”


“I didn’t get a piano prize at the Conservatoire (Paris)”, he once said. “I knew I would never have the virtuosity and the absolutely amazing technical possibilities of Yvonne Loriod” who premiered many of his works for piano.


In their painstaking gathering of birdsong, Messiaen and his wife were walking in the footsteps of Bartok and Vaughan Williams who had both had spent considerable amounts of time trekking through remote areas to notate and record the folk melodies of rapidly disappearing rural communities.


For most  birdwatchers, the thrill is seeing this bird or that and making a note of it. For Messiaen, though, that was only the beginning of capturing the essence of the bird’s song by notating it meticulously and then working it into whatever composition Messsiaen required it for.


The composer, in awe of birdsong, once said that “it is probable that in the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet”.


Although it was the birdlife of his native France that received most of Messiaen’s attention, he was no less fastidious in notating the calls and cries of winged creatures across the world, as in, say, Malaysia and China. One of the earliest examples of Messiaen making use of bird calls in his own music is La Merle Noir (The Blackbird) for flute and piano. As he became more skilled in using birdsong in his music, he would, from time to time, use bird calls which he would weave together in fugal style – and these are marvels of contrapuntal intricacy. 


But if the songs of birdlife were a prime pre-occupation, there were any number of other factors which triggered his imagination: stalactites, bell chimes, galaxies and photons – and landscapes in general and mountains in particular. The music he wrote as a result of a visit to southern Utah in the USA resulted in a  feature of the area being rechristened Mount Messiaen. This may well be the only mountain anywhere in the world named after a composer. Messiaen’s imagination  was often triggered, too, by paintings, one, for instance,  showing the Virgin kneeling in contemplation, worshipping her unborn Child – or by a tapestry representing Christ on a horse, wielding a sword; these keyboard responses are found in Messiaen’s Twenty Contemplations of the Christ Child.


Creative juices almost invariably flowed at the sight of light shining through stained glass windows. This, the composer once enthused, “is one of the most wonderful creations of man. You are overwhelmed. For me, it is the beginning of Paradise”.


His fascination with stained glass was a natural result of his ability, noted when he was still a child, of associating different colours with different tonalities ie he would see colours when listening to sound. There was another youthful epiphany: “I noticed an extraordinary thing (when aged six year). I was reading, and I could HEAR what I was reading in my head”. These were pointers to a rare musical gift.


Since his childhood, Messiaen was profoundly religious; a devout Catholic his entire life. This was somewhat surprising in that he was brought up in a home that was conspicuously agnostic and irreligious.


Messiaen, incidentally, was organist at La Trinite, Paris for 60 years from the age of 22 years until his death at 83.  



Solo Voices at PIAF

Solo Voices at PIAF

Various venues

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

In many years of attending the Perth Festival, I cannot readily recall hearing so many voices of high quality as during PIAF 2004.


Highest profile sing this year was baritone Bryn Terfel who presented a recital devoted to vocal miniatures, most of which originated in the British Isles. As well, there were three songs by Aaron Copland.




Terfel is built like a rugby forward and he has a voice of similar size. It’s a phenomenal instrument, beautifully trained in a way that allows him complete control of the medium, leaving him free to focus on interpretative considerations.

Terfel’s account at Perth Concert Hall of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel was an enchanting listening experience with phrase after immaculately turned phrase expressed via a stream of sound which, from first note to last, was most beautifully coloured in tonal terms. Disappointingly, the piano accompaniment by Anders Kilstrom was far too soft. Instead of providing a fine keyboard foil to the vocal line, the sound of the piano frequently all but disappeared when pitted against Terfel’s singing at its most robust. And at its gentlest, it touched the ear as lightly as a dandelion seed floating across the Concert Hall.

For those who think of Bryn Terfel exclusively in terms of his more heroic opera roles and his ability to blast a way through even the most formidably loud of orchestras, this journey through some of music’s most delicate sonic landscapes might well have proved revelatory. And the overall effect of Terfel’s singing after interval was greatly enhanced by a much more satisfying response from Kilstrom who upped the decibel levels at the keyboard in a way that made for a far more equitable distribution of sound. And, as always, Terfel’s genial stage manner broke the ice instantly.

I especially admired his treatment of four songs by Tosti, not least La Serenata with its ardently expressed vocal line to Kilstrom’s rippling accompaniment.

There were also many rewards at a performance of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in which vocal soloists and a large choir performed in ensemble with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.

I have not heard tenor Aldo di Toro to better advantage; the intensity of his quasi-operatic treatment of the part sounded here entirely suitable and augurs well for a career as an oepra singer. And mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell was radiant both visually and vocally; her concluding solo – Let me be Guarded – before Quando Corpus brings the work to a close, was deeply affecting. One cannot too highly praise the singing, too, of the Australian Intervarsity Choral Societies Association which filled the choir stalls to overflowing. Here was a choir that sounded trained to the nth degree, certainly insofar as fine tonal light and shade are concerned.

Soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was an important figure in PIAF’s Wigmore Chamber Music series, in exceptional form in Messiaen’s Songs of Love and Death (with Cedric Tiberghien an inspired piano partner) and impressive in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2004



Gavin Bryars Composer-in-residence (PIAF)

Composer-in-residence (PIAF)

St George’s Cathedral

Reviewed by Neville Cohn



Gavin Bryars is a burly, black-clad figure with a shaven cranium who might be mistaken for a night club bouncer but is a cove of a very different stripe. The music that pours from his pen is the antithesis of his physical appearance. Most of that offered at St George’s Cathedral at two well-attended concerts is couched in often hushed terms, music of mainly gentle, very gradually evolving ideas which, on paper – and this goes to the crux of his output – might seem a sure recipe for tedium but instead, in a way difficult to define, engages the attention totally.
Most of his output experienced at these two cathedral concerts sounds entirely in accord with Bryars’ fascination with the nature of ‘musical slowness’ and what he calls ‘innovative simplicity’.

Gavin Bryars 1-PAGE ONE

Bryars, too, has an ability to see creative potential in what others might dismiss as expendable rubbish, as exemplified in his inspired musical treatment of a strip of recording tape containing a single line from Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me sung in a thin, quavering voice by an elderly hobo, now dead. Bryars wrote the simplest of orchestral accompaniments to the vocal tape played over and over again. But what might, on the face of it, seem a sure recipe for tedium is, in fact, an utterly engrossing listening experience which, in its poignancy, places it in a special category of excellence.

At this Tura New Music event, we also heard Daniel Kossov as soloist in Bryars’ Violin Concerto with Roger Smalley a meticulously prepared conductor. Kossov’s exquisitely hushed, finely drawn violin line, to an often muted accompaniment, called water-colour images of mist-enshrouded landscapes to mind, an essay in tranquillity.

Percussion ensemble Tetrafide gave us an account of One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing, yet another of Bryars’ fascinating experiments in musical gentleness. I felt strongly drawn to this, as the five percussionists created hushed auras of sound by bowing crotales and vibraphones which combined with marimba murmurings and delicate use of windchimes to produce some of the most soothing music imaginable.

I found Bryars’ Viennese Dance No 1 bewildering as was Bryars program note that Mata Hari (Dutch, her real name was Gertrud Zelle) was one of the three most celebrated dancers in the world. Really? I could not, in all frankness, discern anything about this work that could persuade me that it unequivocally suggested either Vienna or the dance.

But Bryars’ String Quartet No 3 was very much more satisfying musical fare. Deeply felt, often throbbing with ardour, its most passionate moments called Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht to mind and held the attention throughout despite the irritating intrusion of traffic roaring along St George’s Terrace. This was yet another excellent contribution by the Cremona Quartet which has been one of the glories of PIAF 2004.

© 2004