28 October 2019

Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux

It's the season once again for Musikfest Berlin. And this time, I actually bought tickets for three concerts. The first one was for the piano recital of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, featuring Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux.

Catalogue d'oiseaux is a collection of thirteen pieces written between 1956 and 1958. Each piece has a bird's name as a title, but for each of these pieces, Messiaen didn't want to be limited with the image of these birds, but rather, the pieces are intended to evoke the entire surroundings where these birds are found. Messiaen after all, was the most ornithology-savvy composer that we know, and has incorporated bird song in perhaps all of his musical compositions.

The music was definitely hard to understand to the untrained ear, and even for me, this was slightly a challenge. I actually have not encountered Messiaen's music before, so I didn't know what to expect. I do remember back in the late 1990s in Japan when I was taking piano lessons, and every now and then I would browse a music school and bookstore's collection of sheet music. I have encountered the sheet music for Catalogue d'oiseaux back then and remember thinking how complicated it looked like. It definitely was a challenging piece to play, after listening to this concert.

And sure enough, there were people who didn't get it. The concert hall was rather full when we began the concert at 9:00 PM. And already by 9:12 someone started to walk out. By the time the concert ended around 15 minutes past midnight, the attendance of the concert hall was more or less reduced by half.

I really cannot judge the music, because I almost have this idea that Messiaen's music is sui generis. But I can definitely say that it was executed quite precisely. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a well-known interpreter of contemporary piano music, and the way he played this piece was just phenomenal. The notes were crisp and precise, I almost had the impression that even tone clustres were banged on the keyboard quite sharply and not in a muffled way. I would definitely want to see him perform again.

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