Review: Catalogues d’Oiseaux, Aldeburgh Festival, June 19

Catalogue d'Oiseaux at RSPB Minsmere part of this year's Aldeburgh Festival

Catalogue d'Oiseaux at RSPB Minsmere part of this year's Aldeburgh Festival - Credit: Archant

For many reasons this was an exceptional day, not least because it started at dawn and finished at midnight, all to the sounds of birdsong. Birdsong had always fascinated Olivier Messiaen and in Catalogues d’Oiseaux (so much more than a mere catalogue) he created a musical canvas of 77 species of bird within 13 pieces and lasting 150 minutes. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performances of Messiaen are unparalleled, in part because he was a pupil of the pianist Yvonne Loriod, whose brilliant pianistic technique helped extend Messiaen’s creative boundaries and who eventually married the composer after the death of his first wife.

The music is certainly difficult to play and neither is it easy listening. Although at one level it is clearly about birds singing, the specific birds are often difficult to identify, even to bird-lovers. As ornithologist Nigel Collar and musicologist Christopher Dingle pointed out in an illuminating talk, the work is less about recreating a bird song on the piano (as far as that is possible) but more about putting into music the essence of a golden oriole or a buzzard –‘buzzardness’. The composer’s extended and often rhapsodic prefaces to each piece suggest that this was his aim, with frequent references to the bird’s environment, the prevailing weather and the play of light on the plumage.

The day began at 4.30 am with rows of seats in the Maltings café and Oyster Bar facing outwards towards the reedbeds. On the longest day of the year the light was already substantial and almost in tandem with the opening chords of The Black-eared Wheatear a small flock (of a different species) rose from the reeds. It seemed an auspicious sign. Aimard drew every sort of sound and emotion from the piano in this piece and the two subsequent ones, Cetti’s Warbler and Black Wheatear.

The second recital was in the Britten Studio at 1pm and included the central piece of the cycle, Le Loriot (Golden Oriole), a bird that he was greatly attached to and the name of which so closely resembled that of Messiaen’s muse. The rich and radiant E major spoke powerfully and ecstatically of all that is best in the physical and emotional worlds.

The dusk recital took place, appropriately enough, on Whin Hill at the RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve. The concept of a performance ‘en plain air’ was impeccable and there were gains that only such an event could provide. However, there did seem to be some loss of intimacy and intensity. The Alpine Chough was an effective commentary on the bird’s rugged environment and lifestyle and The Curlew contained some of the most striking and memorable passages in the whole cycle.

Tired though most of us were who completed the whole course, the final programme at 11pm was probably the most riveting and brought those of us lucky enough to be there closest to the core of this remarkable man and his unique music. In a darkened Britten Studio Aimard played in the centre surrounded by reposing listeners on mats and cushions. The Tawny Owl, Woodlark and Reed Warbler all inspired some fascinating and original sounds and despite the late hour there was a profound sense of regret as the final chords sounded. Full marks to Radio 3 and the sprightly words of Tom McKinney for bringing all four programmes live to a wider audience but for this extraordinary day there really was only one place to be.

Gareth Jones.

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