Fresh recordings of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles… come along only rarely. Scored for four soloists – piano, French horn, glockenspiel and xylorimba – really every player in Messiaen’s orchestra needs to be a virtuosic soloist too. He gently warns anyone fancying their chances that his woodwind writing is exceptionally tough, while few composers throw out as many hardcore challenges to orchestral percussionists as Messiaen. But given that Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (From the canyons to the stars…) is a philosophical and spiritual portrait in sound of the Bryce Canyon in Utah, with its shape-shifting rock structures and vistas of sheer science-fiction awe, it would have been odd had Messiaen not attempted to accentuate the primacy of sound over music by recalibrating the expected relationships between harmony, melody and rhythm.
Because Messiaen’s hills are not so much alive with the sound of music – these canyons are brought alive with the sound of sound, this extraordinary score inviting your ears to footslog through a living, breathing, evolving aural environment. The first sound you hear is a faraway French horn call, here the excellent John Ryan, which opens the aperture like a wide-angled lens. Then Messiaen zooms in close: woodwind play mannerist birdsong, a piano interlude cracks through emerging orchestral strata, eerie string glissandi shadow the landscape, a wind machine blows air through the structure. As the piece develops over the next 100 minutes, each movement takes a corner of that opening, developing, broadening and juxtaposing its material and perspective.
Myung-Whun Chung was the last conductor to accept Messiaen’s challenge with his 2003 recording for DG that sounds like a rather perfumed postcard compared to Christoph Eschenbach’s charismatic revelling in all this elemental, psycho-geographic splendour. Eschenbach chisels the mosaic together piece by piece, blocks of sound kept flinty and open-ended – until the final movement where the music takes to the heavens and celestial harmony returns.