June 19, 2008


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5. François-Frédéric Guy, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Philippe Jordan. Naïve. $16.99.

Messiaen: La transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ; Visions de l’Amen; Sept Haïkï; Couleurs de la cite céleste; Un vitrail et des oiseaux; Oiseaux exotiques; Des canyons aux étoiles... Various artists. Naïve. $41.99 (6 CDs).

      The French recording firm Naïve is distinctive in several ways. One is in design: its single-CD packages are the most consistently elegant on the market, featuring cardboard rather than plastic cases, artistically designed packages in which the predominant case color matches the color of the CD itself, and extensive booklets (which tuck neatly into a slot in the front of each case) that not only discuss the music but also give the performers themselves a chance to say something about it. Another is its sense of purpose: this is a label dedicated to French performers of all sorts of music – and to French music by all sorts of performers. Although not every release on Naïve is absolutely first-class, all are well done and appealingly presented.

      Two new Naïve recordings neatly focus on the label’s two musical concerns, and both are outstanding. There are many, many recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos available, but François-Frédéric Guy and Philippe Jordan manage to produce one that is quite different from most others. This is surely the most Mozartean version of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto recorded in recent years. The very quiet opening of the first movement – beautifully played by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France – sets the stage for a performance that is distinctly non-overwhelming, and is all the more intriguing for that. In fact, the quiet sections, such as the start and finish of the second movement, are most impressive throughout; and so is Guy’s playing, which is exuberant when it should be and restrained when that is more appropriate. Too many pianists handle this concerto as if it looks ahead to later Beethoven, with crashing chords and full use of a modern concert grand’s resources. Not Guy. He treats the work with delicacy – reflective of the pianos in use when it was written, although he does play on a modern one – and pays close attention to thematic lines, rhythmic changes and a dynamic range that is appropriate without being as wide as it would become in the Romantic era. The result is a balance between piano and orchestra that allows inner voices and individual-instrument highlights to come through very clearly – an accomplished reading all around. It is almost endearing that Guy’s brief booklet essay incorrectly says that this CD contains “le premier et le dernier des concertos.” In fact, No. 1 was the second composed among the five that bear numbers (there are also an early E-flat concerto and a piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto).

      That Guy’s restraint in Concerto No. 1 is deliberate is quite clear from the opening of Concerto No. 5. The “Emperor” was written at a time when piano capabilities had expanded significantly, and it is a far more forceful work than No. 1 – it would have been called “more masculine” in less politically correct times. Here, from the piano flourishes at the opening of the first movement, Guy offers a much more outgoing performance, although he and Jordan remain attuned throughout to the more lyrical sections of the piece. This is an expansive reading, and some listeners may find that the first movement drags a bit in places. The second, though, is quite lovely, not the afterthought of an intermezzo into which some recordings turn it. And the finale is martial and potent without being bombastic, striding along strongly without falling into empty theatricality. This is middle-period Beethoven – there are no late-Beethoven piano concertos – and Guy and Jordan clearly have a good sense of the work’s proportion and style, as well as a level of mutual respect that leads to exemplary give-and-take between soloist and orchestra. It will be most interesting to see how they handle the rest of the Beethoven concertos – Naïve recordings of those will be forthcoming.

      If the Beethoven CD shows Naïve’s commitment to French performers’ handling of the non-French repertoire, the six-CD set entitled Olivier Messiaen, 1908-1992 shows the firm’s other side. The works here are connected, rather loosely, by having mostly religious themes, although that is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the bird-themed ones (Messiaen was an ornithologist as well as a composer and organist). In truth, this set is a grab-bag of Messiaen, not including any of his best-known pieces but focusing on a number of very worthy ones that show his fascinating handling of rhythm and harmony and his unusual instrumental colorations. The earliest work here is Visions de l’Amen, for two pianos (1942-3). Oiseaux exotiques dates to 1955-6; Sept haïkaï to 1962; Couleurs de la cité céleste to 1963; and Un vitrail et des oiseaux (“Stained-glass Window and Birds”) to 1986. These four works, collected here on one CD, are for solo piano and orchestra or instrumental ensemble. La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, written from 1965 to 1969, is the largest-scale piece in this collection, written for large 10-part chorus, piano solo, cello solo, flute solo, clarinet solo, xylorimba solo, vibraphone solo and large orchestra. Des canyons aux étoiles… (the ellipsis is part of the title) is a 12-movement work from 1971-4 and quite complex in its own way, although it uses more modest forces: solo piano, solo horn, solo glockenspiel, solo xylorimba, and small orchestra with 13 string players. Messiaen’s fondness for the xylorimba (which, despite its name, is a xylophone with an extended range, not a combination of the xylophone and marimba) is just one piece of evidence of his concern for extended tonal coloration and unusual instrumental combinations. All the performers on these CDs are impressive, with Pierre Boulez especially good conducting the piano-and-orchestra pieces and Reinbert de Leeuw outstanding as conductor of both large-ensemble works and one of the pianists in Visions de l’Amen (the other being Maarten Bon). Even listeners familiar with Messiaen may not know all the pieces performed here; those who have heard little or none of his music will be surprised by its depth, complexity and occasional outright strangeness. As a tribute to a major 20th-century French composer whose artistic vision was uniquely his, this set is an unqualified success – and a clear reflection of one element of what may be called the Naïve ethos.

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