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Catalogue d'Oiseaux

Sunday 19 June 2016

From sunrise over the River Alde to sunset amid the teeming wildlife of RSPB Minsmere, this was a journey through music and nature that forms the Festival centrepiece. We met bleary-eyed before dawn and 20 hours later, near midnight, the journey was completed as the final notes die away and we rose from the floor where we had been listening in darkness.

Birdsong fascinated Olivier Messiaen all his life and his close musical transcriptions of their calls frequently appear in his music. The largest canvas on which he painted with his palette of avian voices was Catalogue d’Oiseaux, a 150-minute piece for solo piano which creates a rich musical language from the depictions of 77 species of bird that Messiaen heard in his native Camargue region of France.

One of the world’s leading interpreters of Messiaen’s piano music, Festival Artistic Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard creates a day that animates the piece as never before. We are invited to hear the birds evoked by the piano alongside the songs of the myriad real birds of the Suffolk coast, set against a remarkable visual backdrop of two of the region’s most spectacular natural panoramas – the unspoiled expanses of reedbeds, marshy waters and sky at Snape Maltings and RSPB Minsmere.

i. Dawn

We watched the sun rise over the Alde Estuary from the panoramic view offered by the Concert Hall Café at Snape as Pierre-Laurent Aimard takes up the baton from the dawn chorus outside to start his journey through Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux.


ii. Afternoon

In Messiaen’s native Camargue region of France there are only a few birds which sing in the beating midday sun. We retreated to the acoustic purity of the Britten Studio to listen to them.

iii. Afternoon

For the climax of the day we travel to the RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve for an outdoor performance on the BBC Springwatch stage, beyond which spreads a vast expanse of grassland, water, reeds and sky. After the conclusion of the concert, those who lingered were treated to start of the dusk chorus which heralded the gradual setting of the sun.

iv. Night

For the final section of the piece we returned to the Britten Studio and immersed ourselves in darkness. Surrounding the piano on cushions on the concert hall floor, we had the chance to unwind and let our ears take over.



“It was a triumph of logistics on the part of Aldeburgh, and steely-fingered control, stamina and unflappable sang froid by Aimard… For a moment, we heard the owl as Messiaen heard it; a messenger from some other world, glittering and grand.”
✮✮✮✮✮ Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph, 20 June 2016

“Mr. Aimard, though, has good credentials, as a pupil of Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife, muse and dedicatee of the “Catalogue.” And in these Aldeburgh readings he was masterful, with an incisive brilliance and relentless focus that acknowledged how the music marries rigorous complexity with childlike innocence, unsentimental clinicism with romantic charm. He kept the sense of line through episodic stops and starts. And he observed the sense of mystery in the writing, as inscrutable as birds themselves.”
Michael White, New York Times, June 21, 2016

“The pedigree of the performance was impeccable. Aimard is one of the finest Messiaen interpreters around, and the Catalogue was composed for his teacher Yvonne Loriod. But the way he chose to present the three hours of music was also a wonderful tribute to the festival and to the Suffolk countryside in which it has always been embedded.”
✮✮✮✮ Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 20 June 2016

The Catalogue d’Oiseaux project was devised in partnership with RSPB Minsmere

Grateful thanks to BBC Springwatch for the use of its outdoor stage

Supported by Tony Mackintosh & Críona Palmer