Mes­si­aen’s birds soar and sing

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Mes­si­aen: Cat­a­logue d’Oiseaux

Olivier Mes­si­aen’s Cat­a­logue d’Oiseaux clearly means a great deal to to Pier­reLau­rent Ai­mard, who stud­ied with the com­poser and his wife, Yvonne Lo­riod, for whom the cy­cle was com­posed. Two years ago, Ai­mard marked the end of his ten­ure as artis­tic direc­tor of the Alde­burgh fes­ti­val with a dawn-to-dusk per­for­mance of the pieces at Snape Malt­ings and the RSPB re­serve at Mins­mere. This, how­ever, is the first time he has recorded the com­plete 13-piece cy­cle of the por­traits of French birds, di­vided into seven books, which make up Mes­si­aen’s most sub­stan­tial work for pi­ano. Th­ese discs – mark­ing the start of a new part­ner­ship with Pen­ta­tone – show the same com­bi­na­tion of fierce pre­ci­sion and mar­vel­ling fan­tasy that came across in the live per­for­mances at Alde­burgh.

As Ai­mard demon­strates vividly, the Cat­a­logue is one of the great­est, and most orig­i­nal, of all 20th-cen­tury key­board works. The pieces tran­scend the songs on which they are based; this is much more than cosy de­scrip­tion.

There’s a vir­tu­osic fierce­ness to some of the writ­ing – in the rat­tling out­bursts of the fourth piece, Le Tra­quet Sta­pazin (The Black-Eared Wheatear), for in­stance, or in the al­most Lisz­tian flour­ishes that usher in the penul­ti­mate piece Le Tra­quet Rieur (The Black Wheatear) – while the noc­tur­nal ru­mi­na­tions of the two pieces in the third book, La Chou­ette Hu­lotte (The Tawny Owl) and L’Alou­ette Lulu (The Wood­lark), ex­plore a darkly dif­fer­ent world al­to­gether.

The record­ings cap­ture all that dex­ter­ity, and ev­ery nuance of the won­der­fully var­ied key­board colour that Ai­mard brings to the pi­ano writ­ing.

The pieces are gen­er­ously spread across three CDs, so that the cen­tral panel of the cy­cle, the half-hour long La Rousserolle Ef­far­vatte (The Reed War­bler), has the sec­ond disc to it­self. With such room to spare, it’s a shame that Ai­mard does not also in­clude the piece that Mes­si­aen com­posed in 1970 as a ap­pen­dix to the Cat­a­logue, La Fau­vette des Jardins (The Gar­den War­bler), which proved to be his last ma­jor pi­ano work, and is per­haps the finest of all his solo-pi­ano bird por­traits. As it is, though, this col­lec­tion is ar­guably the best of the avail­able ver­sions of the com­plete Cat­a­logue, es­pe­cially as Peter Hill’s record­ings (made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mes­si­aen in the 1980s) ap­pear to be cur­rently un­avail­able. Andrew Cle­ments ★★★★☆ Made up of four one-time mem­bers of the An­tipodean psych scene, Mel­bourne out­fit Con­fi­dence Man have cast off the am­bling melodies and noodly jams in favour of sug­ary, crisp and slightly gawky dance-pop. The thing that first wal­lops you over the head about their wacky de­but is front­woman Janet Planet’s chatty, bratty vo­cal, which cov­ers top­ics rang­ing from the lame­ness of her boyfriend to how quickly other men fall in love with her.

There are shades of Moon Unit Zappa’s Val­ley Girl in Planet’s per­sona, es­pe­cially on the dead­pan COOL Party, but the over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion is of a retro-fu­tur­ist su­per­bitch: cold, con­ceited and very camp. The in­ten­tion may be arch but it’s still not hugely ed­i­fy­ing stuff, and per­haps Con­fi­dence Man would feel a bit old hat were it not for the music ac­com­pa­ny­ing this car­toon­ish char­ac­ter – a pro­foundly up­lift­ing patch­work of dance music’s most glee­ful mo­ments. With its warm breeze synth lines and space-age sound ef­fects, opener Try Your Luck nods to Arthur Rus­sell’s tran­scen­dent disco group Loose Joints, while on Bet­ter Sit Down Boy the band mine turn- of-the-mil­len­nium max­i­mal­ist fun, re­sem­bling a grot­tier ver­sion of Base­ment Jaxx. Else­where, co-vo­cal­ist Sugar Bones goes to Right Said Fred lev­els of bass, and a seem­ingly in­ex­haustible sup­ply of ex­cel­lent basslines rub up against the eu­pho­ria-stok­ing flavours of trip-hop, Mad­ch­ester and other chart-friendly strains of early 90s elec­tron­ica. They cer­tainly aren’t sub­tle, but Con­fi­dence Man’s broad brush strokes be­lie a so­phis­ti­cated and skil­ful dis­til­la­tion of dance-pop joy. Rachel Aroesti

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