Tomorrow will be the United States release date set by harmonia mundi for The Edge of Light, a recording of pianist Gloria Cheng performing both as soloist and with members of the Calder Quartet. This recording allows Olivier Messiaen and Kaija Saariaho to share a common platform, divided almost equally for each of them. The Messiaen portion couples his first acknowledged composition, a set of eight preludes written in 1929 when he was twenty, with his very last chamber music piece, a movement of almost Webern-like brevity for piano and string quartet composed in 1991. The Saariaho compositions are all from the first decade of the current century.
I should begin with a personal “position statement.” I was drawn to this recording because I both enjoy and seek out opportunities to listen to the music of both of these composers. Nevertheless, they represent very different approaches to making music. As a result, when one gets to the Saariaho half of the recording, it is very difficult to avoid uneasy feelings about just how incompatible her work is with that of Messiaen.
There are a variety of reasons that may explain this feeling. Where performance was concerned, the keyboard (organ or piano) was at the heart of Messiaen’s comfort zone, while Saariaho’s inventive experiments with sonority lead her to explore the capabilities of orchestral instruments. Messiaen’s personal esthetic was always guided by a his deep-seated religious convictions, while the closest Saariaho has come to sacred music has been La Passion de Simone, an oratorio about the “abstract mystic” Simone Weil structured as a Passion Play whose episodes are organized around the Stations of the Cross. Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire as a prodigy at the age of eleven; and, for most of his mature life, he had a “day job” as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. Saariaho currently lives in Paris but is more likely to be found in the laboratory setting of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) than in any of the churches.
While any sense that this recording has an overall program may be confounded by these differences, the Messiaen portion still makes for a highly engaging listening experience. The preludes constitute the culmination of his effort to put into music his personal reaction to the death of his mother, which took place when he was eighteen. While Messiaen never studied with Claude Debussy, it is hard to avoid associating the image-based titles of Messiaen’s preludes with those encountered in Debussy in both his preludes and his two books of Images. Indeed, Messiaen’s final prelude, “Un reflet dans le vent” (a reflection in the wind), seems to have been conceived with the title of the first of the Images in mind, “Reflets dans l’eau” (reflections in the water).
Peter Sellars’ notes for the accompanying booklet observe that, in Messiaen’s preludes, “there is no announced religious text or subtext.” Nevertheless, every one of these preludes offers up seeds that would later grow into the logic, grammar, and rhetoric behind Messiaen’s most epic act of faith for solo piano, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (which I would translate as “the newborn Jesus from twenty points of view,” with connotations of Hokusai). This is evident in his characteristic approach to progressions of chords that are almost never triadic, his evocations of religious sounds, such as church bells, and, of course, his apotheosis of nature itself, particularly through references to bird calls. The preludes are thus very much an “introductory key” to the musical language that Messiaen would develop for the rest of his life, making the inclusion of that brief piece for piano and string quartet a heartening summing-up of a life well spent.
In this context Saariaho then confronts the listener with the harsh realities of the secular age. The major work on her half of the recording is a five-movement suite for piano, viola, and cello entitled Je sens un deuxième cœur (I feel a second heart). This is based on thematic material from her second opera, Adriana Mater, a stark tale of a woman who comes to motherhood through rape during a time of war. (That “second heart” is thus the heart of the child she is carrying.)
This seems to reflect back on Arnold Schoenberg in two ways, first as a far darker take on the sexual circumstances in the narrative behind the early “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night) sextet and second in Schoenberg’s gruesomely dispassionate attempt to document his own heart attack and subsequent surgery in his string trio. Yes, the protagonist of Adriana Mater commits herself to love the child she is carrying; but we are left wondering if that love will sustain the cruelties of the hostile world into which it will be born. There is no shortage of darkness in the performance of this suite on this new recording; but that darkness can be hard to take, particularly after the “divine light” of Messiaen’s music, both early and late.
Cheng also recorded two short piano solos that Saariaho composed in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The earlier is a ballade commissioned by Emmanuel Ax, who was seeking contemporary reflections on a genre that Frédéric Chopin had mastered so expressively. The second is a prelude. Both of these reinforce the proposition that Saariaho is not in her comfort zone behind a piano keyboard. Cheng’s account of these pieces is dutiful enough; but, while both of them take less than six minutes, they both feel overly long in the context of the brevity of the Messiaen offerings.
One wonders, then, why the album as a whole was entitled The Edge of Light. Is this supposed to be the boundary between Messiaen and Saariaho? Is this where Messiaen’s “divine light” must be abandoned in favor of Saariaho’s secular darkness? Confronting that threshold and then crossing it would make for a rather depressing listening experience that would not serve Saariaho very well and might reflect on Messiaen as being unduly naïve.