Record reviews

The Abbe Prevost had his Manon Lescaut die in a “desert near New Orleans”; Alexis de Tocqueville brought home to France glowing reports on the American political system; Albert Bierstadt painted our rivers and mountains. Foreign visitors have always reacted strongly and interestingly to the American landscape; few have acted as colorfully, as flamboyantly — and, I have to add, as noisily — as did Olivier Messiaen in a piece for piano, solo horn, percussion and orchestra called “From the Canyons to the Stars.”
The work, in 12 movements and lasting 89 minutes, has an amusing history. The great music patron Alice Tully  commissioned Messiaen for a small piece for the American Bicentennial, to be played by her beloved Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The composer looked through some picture books and fell in love with a photograph of Bryce Canyon, in Utah. But after Messiaen made the trip, the modest piece for chamber orchestra launched upon an uncontrollable process of growth: a larger orchestra, a pianist, more time, more instruments. The travelogue also expanded, from the Utah desert to Hawaii to (at least in the composer’s mind) Belshazzar’s palace in ancient Babylon. “The piece just grew, like Topsy, ” Tully told me once, “and the expenses grew with it. But I didn’t mind.”
The result is an amazing outlay of sheer musical bravado. Messiaen is one of music’s great imponderables: on the one hand, the humble servant of God and St. Francis, both of whom he has often honored in his music; on the other, the master showman, who paints his vast musical canvases in lurid poster colors. (At the Lincoln Center premiere of “Canyons,” the piano part was played by Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, her massive frame draped in a flaming red-orange robe so that she looked exactly like sunrise over a Utah mountain. )
Anyhow, there is a lot to “From the Canyons to the Stars,” and the new CBS recording, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the London Sinfonietta,  with Paul Crossley, pianist, will give you a trip into audible psychodelia. The only piece, in fact, that carries the same power is also by Messiaen, the gaudy, knock-’em-down “Turangalila” Symphony, but that work I find oppressively vulgar compared to “Canyons.”
If you know any Messiaen, you will expect to encounter his major obsessions in this piece: his fascination with translating the songs of birds into music, his passion for instilling into all his music a sense of reverence that  has taken shape during his many years in his organ loft at the Church of the Trinity in Paris and that reflects the broad span of personal belief in this venerable, 81-year-old French individualist. You can resist the clatter in this music, and resist also the composer’s extreme demands on a listener’s time. Sooner or later, however, this music will nail you to your seat.
The performance under Salonen is powerful and sure; he also recorded the “Turangalila,” and his own strong sensibility keeps that score well under control, as well as this. The new album is rounded out with Messiaen’s most popular instrumental work,  the musical aviary “Exotic Birds” (again with Crossley the excellent pianist) and the crabbed, intense “Colors of the Celestial City,” a work that gives me some problems.
Witold Lutoslawski is now 76; every new work adds to his luster as one of the strongest, most original musical figures of his time. He came to the U.S. first in the 1960s, when the world rejoiced in the cultural thaw that had enabled Polish composers, writers and artists to express themselves freely and originally. I remember chatting with him at Tanglewood in 1961 about his hopes for his country’s integrity of expression. That process has encountered setbacks, yet Lutoslawski (alongside Penderecki and a few younger compatriots) have flourished both at home and abroad.
For the spectacularly endowed (in many ways) violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter Lutoslawski has recast a violin and piano piece into a Partita for Violin and Orchestra, an elegant and expressive work. The title suggests a look back at older music, and there are movements in this five-part work that carry a suggestion of the Bach imprint, mostly in the sense of a rhythmic kinship. These dance-like movements alternate, however, with other sections in which the soloist operates with greater freedom, almost as improvisation.
That is an important part of Lutoslawski’s musical manner, and always has been. If you remember the Third Symphony, which Esa-Pekka Salonen performed at the Music Center,  to spectacular acclaim, on his first-ever appearance here, you may recall the  vibrant interplay between written-down, prescribed matter and places where the orchestra is left to improvise (within given limits). That makes this music hard to bring off, but it endows it with a rhapsodic quality that I find irresistible. On this record, which has Mutter playing with the BBC Symphony conducted by the composer, there is also an earlier Lutoslawski work that has become popular, the “Chain 2” of 1984, along with the Violin Concerto in D of Stravinsky, which sounds in this company like the crackling of dried-out parchment.
Some of Stravinsky’s shadow falls across the Violin Concerto of Kurt Weill, a piece dating from 1924 — four years before the start of the collaboration with Bertolt Brecht that established Weill’s international fame. Here is a young composer, 24, newly arrived in Berlin, fine-tuned by his teacher, the great Busoni, to pick up on musical currents sweeping through that most current-swept city of its time. Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto, with its scoring for only wind band, must have made its effect; Weill’s Violin Concerto has the same scoring.
But the tone is the young composer’s own: wry, sardonic, marvelously colorful. Earlier scores by Weill are only now coming to light: chamber works, glorious songs, some orchestral experiments. But the Violin Concerto stands as his great leap forward. On a Musicmasters recording Naoko Tanaka plays the concerto with tremendous control over the work’s sense of mystery, of never quite revealing its secrets. And Julius Rudel conducts the winds of New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s as a splendid background.
Also on the record: Rudel’s extraordinary performance of the “Kleine Dreigroschenmusik,” the suite for small jazz orchestra that Weill made from the “Three-Penny Opera” in the despairing belief that the opera would flop and that something from it, at least, needed rescue. Nothing of the sort transpired, but Weill’s arrangement survives as a separate concert piece, its songs quite different in many ways from their appearance in the stage version. Rudel knows the secret of this music remarkably well; I have never heard it better performed — not even in the 1930 “pirate” by Otto Klemperer, for whom it was composed — than on this  record.