Messiaen’s birds soar and sing
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