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CD Review

La Fauvette Passerinette

  • Julian Anderson: Etude #1
  • George Benjamin: Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm
  • Henri Dutilleux: D'ombre et de silence
  • Olivier Messiaen:
  • Preludes La Colombe
  • Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas
  • Ile de Feu 1 from "4 Etudes de rythme"
  • Le traquet stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear)
  • La Fauvette passerinette
  • Morceau de lecture à vue
  • Tristan Murail: Cloches d'adieu, et un sourire
  • Maurice Ravel: Oiseaux tristes (Miroirs #2)
  • Peter Sculthorpe: Stars (from "Night Pieces")
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen:
  • Klavierstück VII
  • Klavierstück VIII
  • Tōru Takemitsu: Rain Tree Sketch II
  • Douglas Young: River (from "Dreamlandscapes, Book 2")
Peter Hill, piano
Delphian DCD34141 78:56
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On inserting this CD most users will probably want to jump straight to track 13, the title piece by Messiaen. It's the real reason for what's still an otherwise enthralling and very satisfying collection of works performed impeccably and with conviction by accomplished British pianist, Peter Hill. While recording Messiaen's complete piano works for Unicorn-Kanchana (reissued on Regis 7001), Hill worked with Messiaen – between 1986 and 1991 &nsash; and earned the composer's endorsement for his interpretations… "Beautiful technique, a true poet".

Over 20 years later Hill was working on Messiaen's sketches and came across what appeared to be a previously unknown and unpublished work, La Fauvette passerinette (The Subalpine Warbler). The manuscript was in Messiaen's hand with a reminder to himself to make a fair copy, suggesting it was (near) complete. It actually turns out to be a particularly important piece because the harmonic structure is based upon the bird song itself, and not an evocation of place as had been Messiaen's practice hitherto. La Fauvette passerinette was apparently written in 1961, when he spent a week in May of that year in the Hérault region of central southern France. Composition itself seems to have been later in that summer while Messiaen was at his summer retreat in the French Alps, at Petichet.

Hill was able to "realize" or "finish" La Fauvette passerinette partly through his vast knowledge of Messiaen's work and style, and partly by cross-referencing the birdsong notation in the manuscript. We certainly hear the playful (almost joyful) nature of the bird, its syncopated sound where a kind of knowing lyricism is just as important. As the piece ends, the bird seems to fly off in a toccata-like section.

Since Messiaen had finished both fingering and pedaling for this piece, we can surely trust the version which Hill has arrived at, and of which this is a premiere recording. Indeed, the only additions in his detective work were some dynamic markings. La Fauvette passerinette lasts 11 minutes, is one of the longer pieces on the CD, and worth the price alone for its own musical qualities as much as for its historical importance.

Hill includes works in similar vein (inspired by birdsong) composed by Messiaen before La Fauvette passerinette precisely in order to reveal the development of this crucial aspect of his work. But he also adds comparable works by nine other composers. By so doing, Hill shows the huge influence and (usually direct) inspiration for which Messiaen is happily responsible, both as teacher and composer. All these pieces have the theme of nature, the heard environment, and birdsong. The pieces by Murail and Takemitsu are homages and memorials, the latter having died in 1996.

It's an engaging selection and obliquely reveals, really, that Messiaen's great strength of melding exactitude with color, detail with impression, was one of his most important legacies for subsequent composers. Indeed, that is Hill's great achievement here as a pianist as well. He has the ability to communicate in a very present and forthcoming manner every nuance and turn; to be aware of every facet and of the internal logic of piano writing. Yet not to dwell on particulars for their own sake. Rather, as contributors to the widest rhythmic, harmonic and melodic compositional goals which still make Messiaen's music so unusual – or at least so distinctive. And indeed that of the others represented here – from Ravel onwards.

These pieces all have an affect on the listener as wholes, yet are not played to be spectacular or "shining". And Hill finds it easy to reference each of the other composers' indebtedness to (or affinity with) Messiaen. His playing is indeed poetical, measured, sure, lyrical; yet rigorous. There are no tinges of sentiment, romanticism or approximation in the service of suggestion. But at the same time Hill's playing is never dry or fussy. The net result is that this CD as a collection of pieces by ten composers pleases not only because it celebrates the centrality of Messiaen. But also because the basic premise – that the solo piano can indeed evoke, recreate, suggest, imply and resonate with birds in their landcapes – is a good one. And one which Hill executes particularly well.

Lyricism that's neither too tamed, nor which indulges, or wanders is at the heart of all the pieces here, and is reflected in Hill's playing. Wonder is hinted at. As is a subdued certainty in the power of the living world outside us humans. But these are not hammered or unduly pushed. There is an acceptance and calm in Hill's approach that emphasizes respect and admiration in equal part.

The acoustic of the Reid Concert Hall at Edinburgh University – despite some resonance – places the piano front and center and allows every nuance and variation in dynamic (important with these pieces) to reach us cleanly. The booklet describes each of the works and the context and importance of the "new" work by Messiaen. Lovers of that composer's work will not want to be without this CD. Though in fact the same can be said for anyone who enjoys pianism at its best and/or who is likely to appreciate Hill's subtle yet quite striking gifts in this imaginative collection.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey