This must be considered a definitive performance of Messiaen's La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ, the composer's largest choral work, based on the composer's rhapsodic endorsement, which is full of superlatives and triple exclamation points. Written between 1965 and 1969, the piece calls for massive choral and instrumental forces and is one of his most austere creations. In two large sections, each with seven movements and lasting over an hour and a half, it's not a narrative of the Transfiguration as described in the Gospels, but a series of reflections on its meaning, using Biblical, liturgical, and theological texts in Latin. Messiaen cultivates a sense of wonder by creating music with both ethereal serenity and startling outbursts. His extensive use of percussion and his inventive orchestration make the score especially colorful. He incorporates the songs of almost six-dozen birds, perhaps more than in any of his other pieces. The choral writing, which is frequently unaccompanied and unison, shows that the intelligibility of the text is a primary concern, and when the singers break into parts and are accompanied by the full orchestra, the effect of the contrast is spectacular.
Reinbert de Leeuw is one of the foremost Messiaen interpreters to emerge in the late twentieth century. He is absolutely in tune with the composer's often cryptic musical logic, which in the hands of less insightful performers is not always apparent. De Leeuw's reading of the kaleidoscopic score is fresh and spontaneous sounding, which, given Messiaen's carefully calibrated temporal irregularities, must be just what the composer intended. In this stellar performance, featuring Bruxelles Radio Choir and Hilversum Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, the work's otherworldliness is enveloping and its ecstatic eruptions are overwhelming. The sound is clear yet atmospheric, with excellent balance. Any fan of the composer will want to explore this outstanding release of one of his major works.