ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN: Catalogue d'oiseaux / Petites esquisses d'oiseaux
By Katrine Ames
House & Garden
"The natural sounds of the out-of-doors are fine, but how about some music while you plant and prune?...Avian evocations abound in music...For inventiveness and ambition (in the best sense), go to Catalogue d'Oiseaux, a staggering 1957 piano work. Olivier Messiaen, bird lover, colorist, and rhythmic innovator, wove through the score songs of 13 birds of his native France, from the alpine chough to the curlew. (Håkon Austbø has a fine recording on Naxos).
Messiaen was interested in nature from a very early age, and in his middle life became besotted with bird song. "Small servants of immaterial joy" he was to describe them, and he was lost in admiration at the constant creativity of song within the set limits of their basic notation.
He had used an impression of bird song in his early music, but from the 1950's onwards he set about notating their song as best he could. The human ear, of course, can only discern the general outline, many songs far too complex for human ears. Neither do they comply to the intervals that we have between musical notes -quarter tones, eighth tones, none of which we have at our disposal (apart for viola players, who always play them - as the joke goes!).
Why then chose the piano as the instrument where the intervals are so rigid? I was simply that it is basically the only instrument that can play repeated notes as quickly as in bird song.
Even when he had notated them, Messiaen decided to add musical viability, and had to transpose down, half the speed, and so on, in order for us to hear musically what we believe we hear in nature.
He started the Catalogue d'oiseaux in the late 1950's, and it was the first major work for piano after Vingt regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus (on Naxos 8.550829/30). It is in seven books containing thirteen different songs from the more exotic birds, such as the Alpine Chough and Cetti's Warbler.
In 1985 he wrote the much shorter Petites esquisses, which capture the most common birds heard in Western Europe - the blackbird, thrush and skylark - each of these being interspaced by the robin, whose elaborate call we hear at the break of day, and whose repertoire exceeds many millions of times the most productive composer.
While Messiaen has become one of the most respected French composers of the 20th century, his works are not easy to perform, calling upon a very special understanding of his music. The critics were in no doubt that we had found such a person in the Norwegian-born pianist, Hakan Austbo. The Editor of the Gramophone chose his recording of Vingt Regards as one of his ten recommendations for that month, the critic writing: "an essential part of any Messiaen-admirers collection", while Classic CD gave it five stars and stated "Recommended without reservation".
We were anxious to meet the unending requests from customers for the release of this three disc set, though we have - unfortunately - had to put it out well in advance of the elaborate 90th birthday anniversary celebrations that will be taking place throughout Europe. So it may be an issue you would like to heavily promote it again later in the year to meet the increase in demand such exposure will bring.
The only real competition comes from another Naxos artist, Peter Hill, who in his days with the Unicorn label recorded the complete Messiaen piano music. His Catalogue d'oiseaux is expensively spread over three full price discs and the Petites esquisses comes on a fourth disc.
So at the Naxos price we have an unbelievable bargain having both works on just three discs, played by a great Messiaen interpreter, and recorded in stunning digital sound at St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay in England (the same venue as Vingt Regards). The sessions took place in April and August 1996.