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The mysteries of expressing colour and texture in sound come into focus with music of Debussy and Messiaen

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“The Colors of Music,” submitted by Michigan public school student Caden Roberts in a Jackson Symphony art contest.

To many, it must be a mystery how classical music people talk about colour and light and texture in describing the intermingling of intangible sound waves. The secret to understanding this translation is not to think literally, but to think in metaphors and evocations, as when reading poetry.

Some notes of music meet up and hold hands, embrace, or sweetly caress each other. We describe them as light, sweet, consonant, golden.

Others are old sparring partners whose every meeting is a clash of egos or ideas or, worse yet, fisticuffs. Here is darkness, dissonance, crimsons, indigos and purples.

It’s all about evocation and suggestion, often going places our language-based thinking process simply can’t penetrate. As French writer André Esparcieux so aptly stated, there are emotions so untranslatable that we need music to suggest them (Il y a des sentiments si intraduisibles qu’il faut la musique pour les suggérer).

There’s a new album out from Naxos that provides high-definition, 20th century examples of this, as rendered by two pianos and four hands, featuring Claude Debussy’s En blanc et noir (In White and Black) and Olivier Messiaen’s monumental Visions de l’Amen.

The strong performances by Dutch contemporary music master Ralph van Raat and Norwegian pianist Hakon Austbo make this album a particularly fine way to explore the full spectrum of light, colour and rhythm in works that suggest the inexpressible. (For more on this album, including audio samples, click here.)

Debussy provides us with a relatively straighforward introduction at the start of the CD: En blanc et noir, a three-movement spree he wrote in 1915 as the guns of the Great War boomed in the distance.

The first movement, marked “Avec emportement,” (Carried away) is vintage Debussy playfulness. You can practically hear birds and fountains in the higher piano notes as the pianists’ fingers skip along.

Here is a magical interpretation featuring Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter:

But then things get ugly in the second movement, which could easily be about war and the infirmities that crept up on the composer in middle age. I honestly can’t tell if Luther’s Hymn, quoted in the middle, is a sign of hope or despair. Perhaps it’s both. The score is marked “Lent. Sombre,” then “Sourdement tumultueux” (deafeningly agitated), then instructing the players to return to the original mood. Listen to how the tonal balance shifts from the piano’s higher registers to the bass. Again here are Britten and Richter:

And then the clouds part in the final movement, for some inexplicable reason marked in Italian rather than French, “Scherzando — poco meno mosso” (Playfully, but not too fast):

Things get really complicated with Messiaen, who is so clearly an extension of where Debussy was headed at the end of his life.

This music is meant to be an expression of faith, as well as a showcase for the composer’s very particular musical language (a language he codified in an elaborate manual on musical theory and composition). Messiaen devised scales that evoked specific colours in his imagination (he famously had synaesthesia, where a person can experience an artform across several senses), he played with the sounds and rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan, he was fascinated with bird calls — and he was smitten with a 17-year-old piano student of his, Yvonne Loriod, whom he married after his first wife died (Loriod died on May 17, two years ago, after a long and glorious solo-piano career).

All of these elements are stirred together in the seven pieces that make up Visions de l’Amen, which Messiaen wrote in 1943, after he had been released from a prison camp during World War II.

Quite frankly, if you approach this music with anything remotely like a literal mind, you will be disappointed by the mess of notes and frequent dissonances. But let Visions wash over you in a situation where you can place your brain in netural for 50 minutes, and magical things begin to happen.

Here are two of the of the pieces — the fifth, “Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux”  and the final “Amen de la consommation” — performed by Markus Becker and Suzumiya Haruki (not quite as sparkling as van Raat and Austbo):

John Terauds

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