The Messiaen Nexus

Elisabeth Sellars, violin, Kenji Fujimura, piano.
Classical, New Music
Move MD3369
Reviewed by , October 1st, 2014

The CD earns its name as Olivier Messiaen provides two pieces on the CD and was teacher of most of the other composers and a student of Paul Dukas. The performers Elizabeth Sellars and Kenji Fujimura are both faculty members at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University.

The violin was prominent early in Messiaen’s writing career as he had married inspirational violinist and composer Claire Delbos in 1932 and performed many concerts with her during the 1930s. Sadly she developed mental illness and finished her life many years later in an institution. After her death, Messiaen married pianist Yvonne Loriod who also provided inspiration and ideas and who could apparently play anything the composer placed before her.

Violinist Elizabeth Sellars

Violinist Elizabeth Sellars

The album opens with English composer George Benjamin’s Sonata for Violin and Piano written when Benjamin was still a 16 year old school boy studying composition part-time with Messiaen in Paris. Messiaen reportedly described Benjamin as his favorite student and the precocious young man went on to become the youngest ever living composer to have a piece performed at the Proms, and win numerous international prizes and awards including France’s Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. It’s a wonderful piece that explores a wide range of textures, using string glissandi and harmonics inside the piano, prepared piano-like effects, tonal clusters, and reflective moments with eery sounds of “sul ponte arco” or bowing near the bridge. There are also more bouncing rhythmically thrusting sections showing Ravel and Stravinksky influences.

Pianist Kenji Fujimura

Pianist Kenji Fujimura

The Dukas prelude contains Debussy-like parallel seventh and ninth chords and harmonic progressions reminiscent of Ravel and Satie. It was written as part of a collective commission to commemorate the death of Haydn. Pianist Fujimura gives it appropriate gravitas and weight, allowing space for the chords to resonate.

György Kurtag is a Hungarian composer who after the uprising of 1956 studied with Messiaen in Paris but was also depressed during this period and went to Marianne Stein for therapy. At this time he discovered the works of Webern and Samuel Beckett and his Tre Pezzi are amusing, short statements with lots of humour and character using the full ranges of each instrument, and plenty of dynamic contrast. Signs Games and Messages is also epigrammatic, with pithy and surprising statements but the violin tone on this recording is a bit thin in places.

Olivier Messiaen

Pierre Boulez is represented with Anthèmes for solo violin, exploring many of the possibilities of writing for the instrument. It’s a humorous piece inspired from childhood memories of church services: the intonations are represented by long static tones contrasted by more active, dense articulations that capture the sounds and shape of dialogue. Vocal patterns and even laughter are achieved with plucked chords, short repeated fragments and motifs, sighs, repetitions, and the contrapuntal use of melodic voices. The four distinct characters and two languages gradually merge to one with a final “col legno battuto” where the violinist strikes the string with the stick of the bow to finish the piece with flourish and humour. Sellars sounds like she is really having fun playing throughout and captures the intentions and variations of mood and dialogue very well.

Messiaen’s Piece pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas is suitably sombre, even somewhat ponderous and Fujimura strikes some of the climactic forte chords, tensely generating harsh resonances as if to wake the dead. The composer himself, who had synaesthesia and saw various colours upon hearing certain chords, describes orange, white and gold light falling on the long dominant seventh chord and also describes his piece as “static, solemn and stark, like an enormous block of stone”.

The album fittingly finishes with Messiaen’s Fantaisie for Violin and Piano which enjoyed its premiere in 1935. It doesn’t sound like the post-war Messiaen, being perhaps more conventional and carrying several interesting influences (including Gershwin in one place!), and with none of the ornithological or deeply spiritual references of the later Messiaen; but it does feature his use of the modes of limited transposition.

When asked what Messiaen’s main influence had been on composers, George Benjamin said in a BBC interview at the Proms that Messiaen showed that colour could be “a structural, a fundamental element, the fundamental material of the music itself”. The Messiaen Nexus is an enjoyable and accessible album containing surprising moments of humour and a large palette of colours.


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