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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Susanne Kessel, Piano . . . a Olivier Messiaen

Not every coupling of composer(s), performer and sound has to be straightforward to succeed. Pianist Susanne Kessel exemplifies that idea with her adventurous hommage . . . a Olivier Messiaen (OEHMS Classics 859). Interspersed with her piano recital on this disk are five short soundscape electro-acoustic collages by American composer Leon Milo. They are in their own way a hommage to Messiaen as well, combining sounds the composer favored in episodic interludes--with bells, birds, gongs, excerpts from his piano works transformed electronically and such. They do much to set up the solo piano performances and give us contrasting pauses in the program.

Ms. Kessel has chosen carefully seven Messiaen works and added quite appropriately Takemitsu's "Rain Tree Sketch II In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen". The Messiaen pieces span a period of 50 years beginning in 1929 and show the composer's evolution over time.

Every work is a gem; not all of them have been recorded a great deal, and Susanne Kessel gives us poetic, authoritative interpretations. She captures the essence of Messiaen in ways that, compared to many earlier performances, seem virtually effortless in their flow and conversational phrasings. All the more impressive this is, since many of the works are by no means easy to play well. Listen to her versions of three of the Regards works and you may like me be amazed at her fluidity with Messiaen's complicated language. She soars where some others have remained closer to the ground.

Of course Messiaen's solo piano works are among the most important, influential, and beautiful of all that were composed last century. Susanne gives you a tantalizing glimpse of why that is so, with such conviction that I for one wish she would tackle the whole corpus.


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