Messiaen’s masterwork goes for the lot: rocks, birds and throws in the song of the star Aldebaran for good measure.


Aux Canyons Des Étoiles…
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO0083 (2CD)


Fresh recordings of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…) 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 and few composers throw out as many hardcore challenges to orchestral percussionists as Messiaen. But given that Des Canyons aux Étoiles… is essentially 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.

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. 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. Christoph Eschenbach’s revels in all this elemental, psycho-geographic splendour, chiseling the mosaic together piece by piece until the final movement where the music takes to the heavens and celestial harmony returns. Philip Clark

“It is almost a miracle that this, my favourite Messiaen work with its complicated structures was, through the excellence of all the musicians participating, able to be captured in a live recording.”
– Christoph Eschenbach

The Runners-Up

Absolute Jest
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Decca 4786775

Elgar · Walton
Cello Concertos
Li-Wei Qin vc, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Zhang Yi    
ABC Classics 4811243

Symphonies Nos 1-9
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Berliner Phil BPHR150061 (9CD)