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Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare, November 2011

Çedille has been flirting with my Want List for several years now, just missing by a hair in several instances, and so I am happy to include the delicious new Messiaen/Debussy album that features two magnificent two-piano works of great import and fabulous performances. The Messiaen will be a classic for sure, performed with intelligence and perfect understanding by Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, January 2011

It was only two issues ago that I reviewed a new American recording of Messiaen’s early two-piano suite from Marilyn Nonken and Sarah Rothenberg. I found their performance impressive, but suggested the sound was a little too close and dry for the vast triple-forte chords of the two pianos to resonate. I also mentioned this new disc from Oppens and Lowenthal, which I had not heard at that time, expecting great things. Now I have heard it, and have certainly not been disappointed: These distinguished artists give us a thoughtfully calibrated overview of the work.

How perfectly Oppens and Lowenthal time the build of the first movement, Amend e la Création, as it proceeds literally from the depths into glowing major-key light; and yet, they keep some extra power up their (four) sleeves for the thundering peroration of the final movement, Amen de la Consommation. In between, they point each detail and ensure that all dynamic variations register cleanly.

What a strange work Visions de l’Amen is! Composed and premiered in wartime Paris, it predates Messiaen’s great solo piano works but contains hints of everything to come, including the influence of birdsong and even a melodic figure that recurs memorably in the Turangalîla Symphony. It is predominantly homophonic—counterpoint tends to be decorative rather than structural—and in terms of harmony it is quite radical, the composer treating harmonic clashes as though they were consonant. To my mind, the music even transcends the theological symbols of the composer’s vision. The Amen du jugement and final movement provide good examples: repeated chord sequences, intended to convey the apocalyptic power of God and the rest of the divine hierarchy, ironically may also evoke the relentless oppressiveness of such thinking. That is how it strikes me in this performance. (To go even further, a literal reading of the Amen du jugement—a series of short, pleading phrases, each cut off by a savage “bang” in the bass—verges on the comic. One pictures St. Peter hitting the lever for the trapdoor to hell as he thunders “Next!” Far easier to take Messiaen’s religionism with a grain of salt, I think.)

Oppens and Lowenthal’s pianos are set further back in the sound picture than those of Nonken and Rothenberg, and I find this added perspective pays dividends. Their instruments are also more clearly separated left and right, clarifying both Messiaen’s writing and the relationship between the two pianos. In the third movement (Amen de l’agonie de Jésus) an imitative passage shows how closely these two musicians work together; their dynamic level is perfectly matched.

Another plus of this new issue is the coupling, Debussy’s late masterpiece En Blanc et noir. In this wartime opus (in this case the First World War), Debussy expresses his personal angst over the state of his beloved country, while continuing to experiment in harmony and form. More than his final chamber sonatas, this work shows where the composer might have ventured had he lived beyond 1918, away from so-called Impressionism into more abstract, Modernist realms. Oppens and Lowenthal give a sparkling, well-balanced performance, although here the clinical sound and wide separation are less of an asset.

The Debussy brings the disc’s timing up to an acceptable hour—Nonken and Rothenberg play the Messiaen alone—making the new Çedille issue the front-runner in a very close contest.

James Harrington
American Record Guide, January 2011

This is the fourth recording of Messiaen’s two-piano masterpiece to come my way in the past couple of years, and I have come to think that there may not be such a thing as a bad recorded performance of this incredibly difficult work. Given two capable, dedicated pianists willing to devote the time to learning their own parts and then putting them together accurately, the end result has to be effective and impressive. And Ursula Oppens is perhaps the pianist I most associate with contemporary music today. Paired with such an eminent pianist as Lowenthal, the hackneyed term “dream team” seems appropriate.

An outstanding group of Stravinsky recordings made by Oppens and Paul Jacobs was rereleased a couple of years ago (Arbiter 155, Sept/Oct 2008). This is on the same high level. From the almost inaudible hushed opening measures of the ‘Amen of Creation’ to the cacophonous final pages of the ‘Amen of the Consummation’ the sound canvas that Oppens and Lowenthal create for us is as varied as is possible for two pianos. Thanks to Cedille’s top production team for capturing every nuance as well as the huge clangorous moments produced by the big Steinways.

There are many churches with a lot of bells in Paris, and if you are positioned just so on a Sunday morning you can catch two or more different sets sounding together. Imagine for a moment having several of the bell towers very close together, ringing in all their glory, say on Easter Sunday. This is the kind of sound Messiaen conjures up out of two pianos. Messiaen’s work is a musical metaphor of life that is as sonically powerful as it is emotionally demanding (to paraphrase some of Lowenthal’s brilliant booklet notes). Make no mistake, this is not easy music to listen to, and you have to pay very close attention to everything that is going on. Messiaen did supply rather copious notes of his own, which Lowenthal incorporates into his own essay.

Written in wartime Paris (1943), Visions de l’Amen pairs quite well with Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir, also written in wartime Paris (1915). The Debussy is another work to have come my way for review many times in the past few years, and I find myself becoming more and more fond of it. Given the subtle and sensitive performances here that miss none of the battle imagery evoked by Debussy, one cannot fail to be lured into his sound world. This is music that creates many impressions, but is not the kind of music that practically defines the term impressionist found in Debussy’s earlier works. The opening waltz has many clashing harmonies and is interrupted by military-like fanfares (single unison notes played by each pianist with dead-on accuracy). II is dedicated to a friend killed in battle, and the march-like rumblings build to quite a climax with the Germans represented by the Ein Feste Burg choral and the French by what Debussy calls a “pre-Marseillaise carillon”. The final movement is dedicated to Stravinsky and still has suggestions of military music, but is sadder and ends quietly. You couldn’t ask for a more sympathetic and knowledgeable performance of this work. Add in the rich piano sound and Lowenthal’s booklet notes and you have a very special recording.

James M. Keller
Chamber Music, January 2011

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Jeremy Marchant
Fanfare, January 2011

In 1941, Olivier Messiaen was released from Görlitz prison camp, where he had been taken following the fall of France in the Second World War. Visions de l’Amen for two pianos was his first large work after this. The listener will search in vain for any shred of a reaction to the war in this music: Messiaen was inhabiting an intellectual and spiritual space far removed from the ravages of war. It was premiered in Paris in 1943 by the composer and his brilliant 19-year-old pupil, and eventual wife, Yvonne Loriod. Her part—taken by Ursula Oppens on the current disc—“has the rhythmic difficulties, the bunches of chords, everything concerned with speed, allure, and quality of sound”; his had “the principal melody, the thematic elements, everything demanding emotion and power.” So Messiaen wrote in the preface to the score.

Messiaen offers seven meditations on various theological subjects, somewhat tenuously linked by the idea of “Amens,” much as he was to do in his next great cycle, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, where another difficult-to-translate word, regard, is used to provide cohesion to the 20 meditations on the birth of Christ. In Visions de l’Amen, the first piece represents an act of creation—no less than the Creation of the Universe—while the last describes the final Consummation. The second and fifth illustrate the adoration of God by cosmic and celestial creatures; the third and sixth describe the suffering of Jesus and of humanity; the central fourth piece is about desire “in its highest spiritual sense,” as the composer put it.

A considerable degree of cohesion over these disparate pieces is achieved by the use of a single theme, the theme of Creation, in four sequences of chords. This provides the material for most of the seven movements. As he was to do with Vingt Regards, Messiaen allots the first movement to a statement of the theme. In this case, over 39 measures, it is played five times by Lowenthal while Oppens contributes metrically complex, bell-like music (“bells shivering in the Light,” as the composer put it). The opening, pianissimo, is wonderfully evocative. The low chords of Creation, deep inside the piano, are barely more than a cosmic growl, Oppens and Lowenthal drawing in the listener compellingly. This opening Amen of Creation is one long crescendo and the players sculpt the increasing dynamics with complete conviction so that the apparently abrupt cut-off is surprising, even on repeated listening.

Jerome Lowenthal observes in his CD notes that, on its first performance, Visions de l’Amen aroused immediate enthusiasm in some and annoyance in others, and it is in pieces like the fourth movement, Amen of Desire, that the possibly annoyed listener is tested the most. Messiaen has two themes of Desire, the first somewhat sweet, the second extraordinarily saccharine, if vigorous. Yet it is essential that we remember that Messiaen was completely sincere and unironic in this writing. It places a huge burden on the performers, who have to play with complete conviction if all parties are not to collapse in laughter. Paul Griffiths in his book Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time describes this second theme as “[moving] through ever splashier paroxysms of cheapened harmony” and it is to their credit that Oppens and Lowenthal pull this movement off triumphantly.

If the first movement is a composed crescendo, the last, Amen of the Consummation, is a more or less continuous fortissimo. It is a tour de force in this recording: Lowenthal hammers out the Creation theme in the middle register while Oppens manages seemingly superhuman feats in the extreme upper and lower registers simultaneously, peal upon peal of bells pouring out. And, not content with starting this movement seemingly flat-out, both players are able to summon even more energy for the final measures, which are awe-inspiring.

Turning to the fine performance by Katia and Marielle Labèque on Erato, still sounding very good, it is clearly a recording one could live with very happily (as one has). However, the newcomer has the edge in terms of sheer weight of sound. That fuller sound picture emphasizes the intensity of Oppens’ and Lowenthal’s reading, which really takes no hostages. When the sustain pedal is finally released to cut off the huge reverberation of the final chords of the work, one realizes that the attention has been held for 46 minutes through the sheer conviction of all (composer and players) concerned.

Rather than provide more Messiaen, Cedille has opted for Debussy’s two-piano work En Blanc et noir (In White and Black). The link here is that Debussy wrote this music in the France of the First World War. If you’ll look in vain for references to war in Messiaen’s music, here there are a number of allusions, more or less elliptical, to it. The middle of three movements, Lent, Sombre, opens very somberly, and Oppens’ and Lowenthal’s performance brings out all the subsequent mercurial, shadowy shifts of mood and harmony. Their reading of En Blanc et noir is warmer than some—entirely to the advantage of the music—entirely clear and recommendable.

Ursula Oppens turns in a performance of the Messiaen whose “speed, allure, and quality of sound” are impeccable while providing a large amount of “emotion and power” as well, while Jerome Lowenthal is no less compelling in his performance. It’s a shame that Cedille provides only 10 seconds to recover from Visions de l’Amen before the Debussy breaks in, but this is a trivial cavil, faced with such a commanding and excellent disc.

Anna Reguero
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, December 2010

This Cedille release features a pair of pianists who are contemporary music masters. Performing two French wartime works, Messiaen’s “Visions de L’Amen” and Debussy’s “En blanc et noir,” Oppens and Lowenthal are masterful at extracting sustained tension and delayed release from these scores.

Doyle Armbrust
Time Out Chicago, December 2010

Extroverted despair and internal strife find an arresting voice.

WGBH, November 2010

Pianists Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal bring an inspired pairing of two masterpieces for piano duo. Claude Debussy’s En blanc et noir, written in response to World War I, takes you past the atmospheric Debussy listeners know from Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun into a deeper, more personal realm. And Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, written 28 years later in the midst of second of the 20th Century’s massive European conflicts, harnesses that composer’s transcendent language for a sometimes meditative and sometimes ecstatic result.

Ronni Reich, October 2010

Oppens and Lowenthal make a formidable pair in this interpretation of Messiaen’s mystical “Visions de l’amen.” Its seven movements illustrate meanings of “Amen,” in the context of various earthly and otherworldly phenomena. The pianists execute Messiaen’s big block chords and repeated patterns sharply and deftly, bringing out the full effect of the concentrated layers of sound—at times with eerily lingering dissonances, at others with crushing weight. The opening “creation” movement builds with urgency and intensity, transitioning naturally into a muscular depiction of the planets’ dance. The central “desire” movement vacillates from gentle, dreamy meditation to virtuosic, violently effusive outpourings. Debussy’s “En blanc et noir” displays similar bold color, energy and intricacy.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, October 2010

As fans of Messiaen’s Visions de L’Amen will know, it is a tricky business, elevating such demanding piano duo music not only into the realms of technical excellence, but also creating an atmosphere of spiritual exaltation and transcendence. I’ve been having a fish through the versions lurking in my collection, reminding myself of the beautifully played but surprisingly lightweight recording on Unicorn-Kanchana by Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith, and the high quality but still somewhat dry and dated version with John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas, now available on the Explore label. There is also the rather brutally punishing version with Maarten Bon and Reinbert de Leeuw in a tremendous box from Naïve. The best all-round recording I have had to date is that of Paul and Matthew Kim on the Centaur label, though I’m making no claims as to its having definitive status—I think I’ve yet to find a recording which really nails Messiaen’s vision, though Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod make their own unique case, and Steven Osborne and Martin Roscoe on Hyperion are world-beaters. Arguably, the medium of two pianos is after all just not the right one with which to achieve such Visions, but who am I to utter such heresy.

The recorded balance in this new disc with Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal is richer and more lower-mid heavy than with the Kim family. This serves the bass notes well, and makes the overall effect less clattering than some. There is still plenty of rhythmic impact however, and the mix stops well short of being woolly and indistinct. The American Academy of Arts and Letters acoustic is familiar through numerous chamber music recordings. While our noses are closer than they would be to the piano strings than in a concert setting and the hall resonance less relevant, the perspective is direct and believable.

Ursula Oppens is a familiar name in the contemporary music scene, having premiered a remarkable quantity of new music by a distinguished list of composers. Jerome Lowenthal is a less well known name, to me at least, but has been a part of the US music scene since the early 1960s both as a soloist and pedagogue. This pairing is thoroughly equal, and the warmth and energetic synergy between the players is palpable. Do they achieve that transcendent sense of ecstasy we all seem to be looking for in the Visions de L’Amen? I have the feeling that this can have a deal to do with the state of mind you are in when approaching such a recording, but this can be said of much music. This is a recording which rewards experiencing as a whole far more than dipping. I have to admit to being something of a litmus-test listener when initially tackling this kind of grand mountain of music, and had a few doubts at first. Having settled down and decided to listen properly, the sheer scale of the Oppens/Lowenthal performance reveals less a set of seven separate Visions, rather one huge canvas which leaves you staggered and breathless by the end. Yes, all of the elements are present, ranging from the dark atmospheric effects of the opening Amen de la Création, through a weighty Amen des étoiles…and a beautifully lyrical Amen du Désir. The widely ranging Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux is handled well, the remarkable contrasts rapid and inspirational. Our souls thus softened, the final two massive movements, the Amen du Jugement and Amen de la Consommation really are a kick in the solar plexus. Yes, the music is written to be so, but I’ve rarely heard the sheer impact with quite such a physical effect as here. The pay-off for that richer piano sound is a reduced level of funkyness in the rhythmic power of the final movement, something which Paul Kim and Son do very well indeed. The deepest bass becomes something of a noisy roar with the balance for Oppens/Lowenthal, but this is still pretty daunting stuff.

Debussy’s En blanc et noir caused something of a stir amongst a conservative older generation of composers in the Paris of 1915, and Jerome Lowenthal’s booklet notes open with the crusty criticisms of Camille Saint-Saëns. Nearly 100 years later, and our ears are by no means as scandalised by music which is filled with sparkling wit, atmospheric tragedy and the juxtaposition of innocent and sinister expression in its respective three movements. Tinged with the effects of war, there are military calls and other references all through this powerful work, and the logic of placing it against Messiaen’s Visions de L’Amen is entirely credible. This is far more than just a filler, and is very well played here by the Oppens/Lowenthal duo. They bring out the little Stravinskian touches and colour in the polytonal elements with precise and lively observation—great stuff, but no wonder Saint-Saëns threw a wobbly.

This is a very well recorded and superbly performed disc, and comes highly recommended. Is it the definitive Visions de L’Amen? Does such a thing exist? Right now I don’t care all that much, this is certainly the best recording of the work in my current collection.

Peter Bates
Audiophile Audition, September 2010

Olivier Messiaen composed “Visions de l’Amen,” a work for two pianos, in 1943 after having been released from a prisoner of war camp (where he'd written the justly-famous “Quartet for the End of Time”). For Messiaen, who experienced a type of synesthesia, colors could evoke sounds. He composed “Visions” in the key of A, which he decided was blue, the color of the sky and eternity. Of course that impression would occur to about .000001% of listeners, as would its purported religious content. Much more notable is the style and structure of the pieces, whose roots in Balinese music, plainchant, bird songs, and the pianist Yvonne Loriod (his wife, muse and former student), defy rational analysis.

Like most of his other works, “Visions” are composed in massive sound blocks without much development or continuity. The longest work in the cycle, for example, “Amen du Desir,” begins lyrically, almost tenuously, with a melody that’s first hinted at, eventually stated boldly and repetitively, then suddenly departed from rather than varied or echoed. Minutes later, he returns to this ostinato theme with a ferocity that Ursula Oppens conveys with uninhibited modernist skill. The shortest piece, “Amen du Judgement,” is a series of sound blocks with andante scalar runs punctuated by dark ominous chords. Oppens and Lowenthal do this piece far more justice by bringing out its rough edges and dissonant sonorities than Peter Serkin and Yuji Takahashi did by draping it in romantic tissue eleven years ago (BMG Classics 09026-68907-2). I’m also glad they included the rarely performed Claude Debussy “En Blanc et Noir,” a close cousin to the Messiaen work that has exciting progressions and haunting rhythms, but is nowhere near as unruly and unpredictable.

Norman Lebrecht
Dilettante, September 2010

Despite its devotional title this four-hand set, written in Paris under German occupation, is troubled and troubling. The composer, returned from a fairly civilised prisoner-of-war camp, was fretting over his wife’s health. He gave the premiere, in May 1943, with his star pupil Yvonne Loriod, later his second wife. Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal play with high tension and forebodings of doom.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, September 2010

Olivier Messiaen’s apocalyptic masterpiece for two pianos (1943) has not lacked for committed interpreters on disc, but this newest version is right up there with the best. Oppens and Lowenthal summon colors as glowing as those of the stained-glass windows from which Messiaen, a devout Roman Catholic his entire life, drew much of his inspiration. The Debussy suite makes a piquant bonus.

Edward Ortiz
Sacramento Bee, September 2010

It’s not an unreasonable notion to think that music written for two pianos can sometimes be too much of a good thing, especially when the composer is Olivier Messiaen.

But on this Cedille release, clarity and insight make the opposite argument—that a dialog between two pianos can bloom with clarity.

On this disc, Messiaen’s “Vision de l’Amen” is paired with Claude Debussy’s “Blanc et Noir.” It’s a smart pairing. Aside from being two works from French composers, the pieces are examples of works written as a response to war.

Best of all is the choice of artists to pull it off. It’s hard to imagine the two works getting a better performance than what is offered by pianists Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal. These musicians share a deeply intuitive sense for 20th century repertoire, and they regally reinforce that notion here.

With Debussy’s “Blanc,” a set of three pieces for two pianos, from 1915, it’s clear how much Debussy’s musical psyche was affected by World War I. With this music, dissonance plays out like a soothing after-battle balm.

In the waltz-like first movement “Avec emportement,” the two-piano dialogue begins powerfully, with dark, shimmering music that evolves into the swirl of triplets. As is the case throughout this CD, the interplay between pianos is handled with great care.

On the second movement, where Debussy sought to evoke “a deserted battlefield,” the music begins with eager menace. Drum calls and cannon shots are heard. A sad brilliance pervades here, where the contrasting themes pit Germans against the French. When listening to these two pianos spin out their dissonant music, it gives you an idea of the despair and angst that World War I fostered.

Messiaen’s seven- movement “Visions de l’Amen” was written in 1943, after Germans had overrun France in World War II. Here the musical ideas are less literal. As with his epic “Vingt Regards,” there is a heady amount of emotionally demanding piano music to be played here, and Oppens and Lowenthal do not disappoint.

In the first movement, the first piano is charged with playing clamorous music while the second piano stays in tuneful mode. What is wrought is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic movements Messiaen ever wrote for the keyboard.

In the second, rhythms leap feverishly between pianos, blurring the line between the two. On the contrasting themes that rule the fourth, a pensive musical idea gives way to the urgency of ardor.

The music here is not of the kind that instantly warms the belly. But that was never the point. Nonetheless, this is a recording that will reward the listener each time out. And for fans of Oppens and Lowenthal, this is a must-have recording for the way they make these two difficult works sound alive and noteworthy in every way.

Patsy Morita, September 2010

Both Oppens and Lowenthal are technically superb, separately and as an ensemble. Their unison passages are spot-on together, and overall their playing is precise and intent. ...[The sound] is clear and balanced between the two instruments and between the different registers of the pianos...a technically superior performance, pianistically speaking...

Jed Distler, August 2010

What a great idea to pair two major 20th-century French two-piano works, both composed in wartime. More importantly, Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal prove an inspired pair, pianistically speaking. Throughout Visions de l’Amen’s seven movements the pianists navigate the composer’s tricky rhythms and frequently thick textural hurdles with impressive ensemble exactitude, uninhibited dynamism, and cogent organization of melodic and decorative elements. One good example of this can be found in the third movement, Amen de l’Agonie de Jésus, where, in the Bien modéré section, the second piano’s fortissimo tune is perfectly contoured against the first piano’s chords in the same register (left-hand forte, right-hand mezzo-forte). Similarly, the duo’s long-lined animation and textural diversity in the seventh movement prevents the music from sounding long-winded and from bogging down.

Oppens commands the first piano part’s big chords and wide leaps with the utmost solidity, definition, and rhythmic focus, and always knows when to dominate and pull back. Lowenthal has all of the good tunes...and he relishes accents more than certain of his discographical competitors. He also allows himself freedom in solo passages when expressively appropriate, such as in his ever-so-slight yet heart-quickening accelerandos under certain crescendos in the second movement.

In contrast to the lean and streamlined profile characterizing the Kontarsky brothers’ reference recording of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, Oppens and Lowenthal opt for full and generous sonorities, even when playing quietly. Although they seemingly employ as little sustain pedal as possible, a mellifluous yet strong legato quality emerges from massive chords, rapid bass-register rumblings, and fleeting flourishes. Who said you can’t be impressionistic and clear at the same time? Save for slightly congested climaxes, the full-bodied engineering is excellent. Lowenthal’s superb, highly informative annotations add further value to this desirable release.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group