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CD Review

Olivier Messiaen

St. François d'Assise

José van Dam
Christiane Eda-Pierre
Kenneth Riegel
Choir and Orchestra of Paris Opera/Seiji Ozawa
(Première: Paris, December 1983)
ASSAI 222212 4CDs 230 mins; Discovery Records UK
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This is just a brief welcome for the auspicious recent release of the first performances of this mammoth opera, which breaks all rules and is gradually taking its place as an unquestionable masterwork. I have had variable personal responses to Messiaen over the years, finding his unique originality tends to pall with familiarity and over-exposure, but this paean to faith and nature has restored my admiration for one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composers of the last century.

Messiaen worked on St. François d'Assise for nearly eight years (1975-1983), and I make no apology for having listened to these CDs a scene at a time, spread over most of a week. This preserved a fresh response and I found myself increasingly engaged.

The text is given in French only and I found that very acceptable; the pace is slow so, with only school French, one can work out the gist easily enough and focus upon the sung words themselves and, particularly, the music which intersperses every utterance in its stately progress through four CDs.

It is good to have the original cast preserved and I found the performances of José van Dam as Saint François, Christiane Eda-Pierre, the Angel, and Kenneth Riegel as the Leper very satisfying. The orchestra is recorded in a natural way (not too many microphones, I guess) and it all sounds well. The Assai recording of the original Paris production, the one I have (I see that Zagrozek has recorded it for Chandos with the Vienna Radio Symphony on two, but have not confirmed its availability) is sonically entirely satisfactory, as well as being a historical document of first importance.

Rather than going into repetitious detail about the opera itself, I prefer to provide a link to Seen&Heard's recent review of the San Francisco production last autumn, which is graced with a selection of evocative photos.

To get a feeling of the music and its expressive range, I would suggest that those who are hesitant should try to sample the music of Scene 2 – Le Baiser au Lépreux and the key Scene 6 – Le Prêche aux Oiseaux, which fired Messiaen's his imagination and bring together his lifelong preoccupations. This opera is a quite wonderful summation of all Messiaen's music which has incorporated notated transcriptions of birdsong from all over the world, and in these dark days those two scenes can also be seen as a plea for compassion and conservation of a natural world threatened with irreversible destruction.

Copyright © 2003, Peter Grahame Woolf