Gloria Cheng and Calder Quartet Bring Messiaen and Saariaho to Light

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On their new CD, "The Edge of Light," the wildly adventurous West Coast keyboard virtuoso Gloria Cheng and the even wilder Calder Quartet help to contextualize Olivier Messiaen's titanic legacy by pairing a 1929 piano suite and a 1991 quintet with 21st-century pieces by Kaija Saariaho, Messiaen's heir apparent in the present day.

Olivier Messiaen was not just an important composer; he was a giant of modern music whose career straddled the 20th century. His influence was as irresistibly seductive to the mind as to the ear, both meticulously constructed and vibrantly colored, and it connects the innovations of composers like Debussy and Ravel to those of the severe midcentury high-modernists, and arguably to the present-day experiments of the "spectralist" composers, with their scientific approach to timbre and harmony.

Messiaen's lovely Préludes for piano, especially in Cheng's assured and sensitive hands, easily make the case for the composer's aural appeal – it's hard to imagine a listener who could be intimidated by its rich, elegant harmonies. At only three minutes, the more bracing Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes makes up in density what it lacks in duration, and the Calders give their part the percussive bite it needs to let Cheng's luminous lyrical solos sing by contrast.

The liner notes by opera director Peter Sellars, an accomplished interpreter of both composers, tell us that the material from Kaija Saariaho's piano quintet, Je sens un deuxième cœur, comes from her opera Adriana Mater, but the Finnish composer's music responds so eloquently to the legacy of Messiaen that she might as well have written it for this album. Her musical voice, influenced by the spectralist blurring of distinctions between tone, pitch and harmony, is decidedly her own, but it achieves Messiaenic heights of beauty and intensity.

The sheer sensual pleasure of this repertoire would be enough to recommend this disc. But Saariaho's previously unrecorded Prelude and Ballade for solo piano, works of Chopin-like beauty and virtuosity, fill out the running time in luxuriant interpretations that seal the proverbial deal.

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