The seven "books" of Olivier Messiaen's enormous "Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds)" were composed between 1956 and 1958. In all, they encompass two and a half hours of some of the most beautifully evocative music for solo piano ever penned. Peter Hill's epic survey of the complete piano music of Olivier Messiaen splits this particular cycle over three volumes. This disc is the second of those volumes, featuring books 4, 5 and 6. (For the other volumes see "Catalogue d'oiseaux, Books 1-3", "Catalogue d'oiseaux Book 7". This CD is also available as part of the Peter Hill's complete "Catalogue d'oiseaux" set and also within the "Messiaen - Complete Piano Works".)
Peter Hill worked closely with the composer during the preparation for these recordings, made in 1988. His performances were enthusiastically endorsed by Olivier Messiaen himself, so that one can regard this series as being as close to a definitive set as it is possible to achieve. Certainly, the performer's sympathetic treatment of these works, combining pianistic precision with an exquisite deftness of touch - as well as the discs' stunning recording quality - makes it unlikely that they can ever be bettered. These discs also include the composer's own detailed programme notes for each of the movements, together with a highly informed and informative essay on the works, written by recording producer, Anthony Pople, making this a truly indispensable series of releases indeed.
The "Catalogue d'oiseaux" as a whole provides a wonderfully atmospheric depiction of various wild parts of France, through highly virtuosic presentations of sequences of transcribed bird-song, painstakingly notated by the composer on countless field-trips throughout his life. What comes across to the (non-ornithological) listener first and foremost, though, is the intense musicality - and colourfulness - of the resulting opus. These are true studies - and celebrations - of beauty. It is also music of the utmost joy and peacefulness, reminding us that as well as his love of the natural world (most especially its birds) Olivier Messiaen also held deep religious convictions. Here is beauty tempered by spirituality, resulting in the most moving and touching of musical works.
Like much of Olivier Messiaen's music, "Catalogue d'oiseaux" has a palindromic structure and Book 4, with which this disc opens, is very much the centre-piece of the cycle's seven books. It consists of a single movement of some 32 minutes duration, 'La Rousserolle Effarvette (The Reed Warbler)'. This movement reflects in miniature (!!) the entire structure of the cycle within which it sits by being itself grandly symmetric. It continues where the previous book of the cycle left off: in the dead of night, from whence it proceeds to portray, in the words of the composer, "a great cycle of 27 hours in the bird life of the reeds, lakes and marshes, and of the neighbouring woods and fields... of the Sologne region, south of Orléans." It thus both begins and ends in the dark, with the singing of frogs and other marsh creatures, together with the resplendent night-time singing of the Reed Warbler. In between, though, we are treated to a full daily cycle of events, through the spectacle of sunrise and the increasing swell of insect sounds with the growing heat of the day, to the sweet singing of the Skylark during the afternoon, before sunset delivers us back into the hours of darkness and summons forth once more the creatures of the night. Olivier Messiaen's ability to distil the very essence of time into his works in this way never ceases to amaze - and delight - no matter how often one hears it.
Continuing the palindromic structure, Book 5 presents two contrasting scenes, in the same vein as Book 3. The first, 'L'Alouette Calendrelle (The Short-toed Lark)', features the piping call of the Short-toed Lark, in duet with a Crested Lark, in an evocation of the fierce light and heat of a July afternoon in Les Baux, Les Alpilles. In contrast, the rich colours of 'La Bouscarle (Cetti's Warbler)' portrays the vivid displays of bird-life along the banks of the Charente river during the last days of April. The gently flowing river underlies the varied calls and other events of the river bank in the spring.
Book 6, with which the disc finishes, matches Book 2 by providing a single portrait encompassing most of a complete day. 'Le Merl de roche (The Rock Thrush)' is set in Hérault, in May, high amongst the jumbled rocks of the Dolomites. This is quite a dark and brooding 20 minute movement, with the oppressiveness of the looming towers of stone writ large, even through the sections portraying the daylight hours. The night sections, with the haunting hoots of the Eagle Owl are particularly sombre and moody.
This section of the "Catalogue..." is somewhat harder going than the outer sections, largely as a result of its greater intensity. Within the context of the work as a whole, though, the music here is entirely captivating and, given proper listening conditions, never fails to reward the attentive listener. It is indeed music to treasure and is presented here in one of the very best versions imaginable. Unreservedly recommended, although it really needs to be played in conjunction with the first disc in the cycle.