Olivier Messiaen's Harawi in Breathless New Form

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You might hear it said that the works of a composer are “conductor proof”—that after a threshold level of competence is met, each performance will seem largely the same. And while the works of Olivier Messiaen are occasionally spoken of in this way, the first seconds of Jacob Greenberg’s energetic new recording of the piano piece Cantéyodjayâ really do blast this idea to bits.

This is Messiaen in which the hairpin-turn changes are navigated with such exuberance that you could mistake it for masterfully composed, adventurous modern jazz. In alternating between the dissonant chords of the opening figure and the knotty, halting-then-blitzing single-note runs that pop up between reappearances of the theme, Greenberg creates a fluid overall feel.

Some pianists linger over the odd rhythm transitions, or amp up the otherworldly connotations of Messiaen’s transfigured harmony. Yet Greenberg carries all those oddities on his back while managing to dance elegantly all the same. It makes his Cantéyodjayâ feel very much of the here and now—a time when International Contemporary Ensemble members, such as this pianist, use their technical prowess to march mid-twentieth century modernist works we thought were interpretation-proof to some exciting new places.

This approach continues throughout the main course offering: a complete reading of Messiaen’s Harawi song cycle, in which Greenberg’s playing supports soprano Tony Arnold. Unlike some other Messiaen texts, this one is not religiously oriented, but inspired by the Tristan narrative. Like Greenberg in his solo feature, Arnold delivers on the interpretive possibilities. Her vibrato on “Bonjour toi, colombe verte” feels rich with Tristan-relevant ardor, while remaining steady and controlled. And the soprano’s breathy articulation of the opening “Doundou tchil” refrain stays on the boil long enough that, in the end, it becomes unusually heated.

Arnold’s flights up toward top notes—on “L'amour de Piroutcha” and the pianissimo finale—all come off with assurance. There are only a couple fleeting half-seconds during which an interval-plus-rhythm switch-up is taken on so aggressively that the execution seems momentarily in jeopardy (as in the dashing penultimate movement). But overall, with Greenberg’s mobility of attack complementing Arnold’s every step of the way, this album feels like one of the best new interpretations of Messiaen in years.

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