ONE OF THE SEVERAL eminent musicians the anniversary-conscious Mstislav Rostropovich will honor in that context in next seasion's National Symphony concerts is Olivier Messiaen. His L'Ascension and Oiseaux tristes will be performed (the latter with his wife, Yvonne Loriod, as piano soloist) on November 14, 15, 16 and 17, a few weeks before his 70th birthday (December 10).
Well ahead of that anniversary, the Musical Heritage Society has just issued a disc on which L'Ascension is packaged with two more of Messiaen's orchestral works of the early 1930s (which is to say, his own early twenties) - Hymne and Les Offrandes oubliees ; the performances are by the Orchestre Philharmonique of the ORTF, under Marius Constant (MHS 3685).
The jacket carries Messiaen's annotations (unsigned), in which he cites performances of L'Ascension by no fewer than nine conductors but does not mention the late Leopold Stokowski, who did more than any of his colleagues to make the work familiar to a large public by recording it twice. Perhaps Messiaen disapproved of Stokowski's way with those "four symphonic meditations," which involved some foreshortening of the last movement and perhaps a touching-up of the instrumentation here and there; there is no denying, though, that the incomparable maestro's well-recorded performance with the London Symphony Orchestra (London SPC-21060) is a stunning listening experience.
The Orchestre Philharmonique is not in the LSO's class. It is the ORTF's second-string orchestra, not to be confused with the Orchestre National (now called Orchestre National de France), which is represented in so many recordings under the likes of Munch, Beecham, Martinon and Bernstein. It is more than adequate to its assignment here, though (except for some imprecisions on the part of the strings in the second movement), and the Constant is an old hand at this sort of thing; he made these recordings with the composer's full confidence, and very likely in his presence. The recording itself (by Erato) is clear and well-balanced, if less brilliantly alive than London's.
All of Constant's tempos in L'Ascension are a bit slower than Stokowski's, except in the third movement, "Hallelujah on the Trumpet, Hallelujah on the Cymbal," wherein the old master breathed a little more freely to let every fanfare-motif make the most opulent impact.
Although I haven't really checked, neither the Hymne nor Les Offrandes oubliees seems to have been recorded before. This is especially surprising in the case of the latter work (Messiaen's first composition for orchestra), which has enjoyed a respectable frequency of performance by American orchestras; like L'Ascension, this work has a religious "program," its three subsections headed "The Cross," "Sin" and "The Eucharist."
The Hymne, despite the similar implications of its title, is described by the composer as being "above all characterized by its color effects": it "uses the colors of the chords . . . combines gold and brown to orange striped with red, then orange and milk-white to green and gold . . . takes off on the blue-violets and greens, and rises up to the red and gold of the final fanfare of the trumpets." Both works are brought off most effectively, and the disc as a whole is about as "basic" an entry as one might imagine for the discography of Messiaen's orchestral works.
If you are ordering this disc from MHS, you might want to know that the mail-order company now is offering recordings from the U.S.S.R. which have been available for some time on the Melodiya/Angel label at a higher price. Gennady Rozhdestvensky's superb account of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake score - absolutely complete - even sounds a little smoother, sonically, in MHS three-disc set 3662/64, and it comes, curiously enough, with the annotative material prepared by Angel. The Musical Heritage Society now is at 14 Park Road, Tinton Falls, New Jersey 07724; discs are $3.75 each, and there is a shipping charge of $1.25 per order, regardless of quantity.