Tuesday, 18 May 2010
Yvonne Loriod, the virtuoso pianist, ondes martenot player, composer, and wife and muse of Olivier Messiaen passed away on Monday. She was a piano player of amazing, intuitive technical facility. Messiaen composed music with her technique and style in mind, knowing that she could master the most taxing physical requirements which his musical imagination might demand. Her support of modern music and ability to understand and sympathetically interpret its often complex and bewilderingly new idioms led to her giving premieres of pieces by composers such as Boulez, as well as her husband. I remember hearing a broadcast of her playing Messian’s solo piano suite Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus one Christmas a while back. This was about 2 hours of the most demanding music for the performer, full of block chords, birdsong trills, unconvential non-western rhythms and wide dynamic shifts. Incredibly, she played it all from memory. She had the eidetic ability to absorb music as if it were a vividly recalled film, and had learned the entirety of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier when she was still in her teens. She was also a composer herself, although her works seem to be seldom performed or recorded. Perhaps she lies too much in the prominent shadow of her husband. Her works tend to feature both piano and the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument which includes both a keyboard and a ring controller which could be swept up and down to create gliding swoops of sound. Her sister Jeanne was a master of the instrument, and would play on these pieces, as well as on Messiaen’s compositions which incorporated it (and his enthusiasm is indicated by the fact that he composed a piece for 6 Ondes Martenots in 1937 called Fetes des Belles Eaux – you can hear Oraisons, an extract from it, on the Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music box set). Yvonne was also played the Ondes Martenot, and did so more often after Jeanne died in 2001. There aren’t too many players of this rare instrument left in the world (although Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has done his bit to popularise it, and I saw one being played in Yann Tiersen’s band) and Loriod’s death makes it seem like an increasingly endangered species. To think of all that music in her head, memorised and stored away, waiting to be given life by the unique spirit with which she could imbue it. Now it’s gone. I shall go and listen to Jardin du Sommeil d’Amour from Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, on a recording which features Jeanne on Ondes Martenot and Yvonne on piano. It makes for a fitting and beautiful elegy.