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Although famed as an organist, the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) may be said to have been principally inspired by the piano from the start of his career, from his early Préludes (1928-29) through to his Visions de l’Amen for two pianos (1943) and monumental 1944 cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Christ- child). A sonorous pianist himself, Messiaen was further inspired by falling in love with a teenaged pupil, Yvonne Loriod, at a time when his then-wife, a violinist, suffered from mental illness.

Messiaen came from a family of ardent antisemites: his father published scholarly prefaces tainted with antipathy towards Jews and his brother wrote poetry, published at Messiaen’s expense, expressing similar contempt. Messiaen’s obliviousness to the wartime fate of Jewish teachers and students at the Paris Conservatory is a matter of record. None of this downside is mentioned in the otherwise heavily documented study by Schloesser, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, who idealises the composer far more than his French contemporaries and colleagues usually did.

Schloesser does plausibly highlight the influence of Surrealism on Messiaen’s early piano works, and in a lengthy description of the Visions de l’Amen (oddly including quotes by John Updike and Raymond Chandler) alludes convincingly to Loriod’s inspiring the composer as interpreter. The publisher offers a downloadable recording of Visions from the refined Canadian pianist Stéphane Lemelin and Korean-born Hyesook Kim, expressively sombre to the point of drabness, which unfortunately cannot rank high in a now-rich discography.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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