Olivier Messiaen must certainly have been the most idiosyncratic of late 20th century composers. Two preoccupations dominated his music -- his Catholicism, and his love of birds. These came together in the figure of St. Francis, to whom he dedicated an opera, one of his last major works.
"Des Canyons aux Etoiles..." was commissioned for the U.S. Bicentennial. In searching for a topic, Messiaen discovered and fell in love with the canyonland of southern Utah. He visited the area in 1972 -- Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and Zion Park -- and began writing. This was his tribute -- the stars of the night sky in the desert, and the stripes formed by the layers of rock, reaching deep back into time, the stark beauty of the landscape, filled with birdsong, reflecting the glory of God.
"Des Canyons" is a most idiosyncratic work from a most idiosyncratic composer -- it is unclassifiable in terms of form, though piano concerto comes closer than most. There are 12 movements, and 4 featured instruments -- piano (Roger Muraro), horn (Jean-Jacques Justafre), xylorimba (Francis Petit), and glockenspiel (Renaud Muzzolini). The orchestra (Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung) is reduced to a large chamber ensemble, with woodwind, brass and percussion sections of orchestral size, but just 13 strings.
The 4th and 9th movements are piano solos, playing the songs of the white-browed robin and the mockingbird, respectively. Messiaen was a serious amateur ornithologist who taped birdsong and transcribed it for use in his music -- other birds featured in "Des Canyons" are the Sahara bird, orchard oriole, canyon wren, American robin, Stellar's jay, and wood thrush. Much of the long, episodic work is dominated by piano and percussion. A wind machine is used periodically, adding to the unique texture.
This is, I believe, the third recording of "Des Canyons," following one on Sony with Salonen conducting, and one on Montaigne, with de Leeuw conducting. I haven't heard them, so I can't compare, but this 2001 recording is marvelous. The conductor knew the composer and worked with him on other recordings, so he is tuned into Messiaen's idiosyncratic vision. I find that "Des Canyons aux Etoiles..." weaves its spell most effectively late at night, by starlight...
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