Yvonne Loriod: Pianist who became the muse and foremost interpreter of the works of her husband Olivier Messiaen

Yvonne Loriod's name will always be connected with that of her husband Olivier Messiaen, whose piano works she championed faithfully for six decades. Indeed, one of her best-known students, Paul Crossley, made a telling analogy:

"The musical partnership of Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod was, I am quite certain, as important as that of Robert and Clara Schumann. Like Clara Schumann, Yvonne Loriod was muse, companion, adored wife, interpreter par excellence and – for lucky privileged people like me – inspired teacher."

Messiaen was unstinting in his praise of this "unique, sublime and brilliant pianist, whose existence transformed not only the composer's way of writing for the piano, but his style, vision of the world and modes of thought".

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another of her star pupils, identified the change: "Before they met, his piano music reflected his organist's background: it was less virtuosic, less challenging, it had less variety. And all of a sudden he integrated all the brilliant pianistic ability of this young prodigy."

Messiaen's music demands brilliance and precision and Loriod's complete technical control – her rhythmic accuracy, her control of tone, her pedalling, her ear for colour – made her its perfect vehicle.

She began studying the piano at the age of six and at 11 transferred to her Austrian godmother, Nelly Eminger-Sivade. By the time she was 14, she had under her fingers all 32 Beethoven sonatas, the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach's Well-Templered Klavier, all the Mozart concertos, Chopin and Schumann, and most of the rest of the standard repertoire – she was, in Aimard's words, "a monster in the best sense of the term!"

This rollercoaster of achievement continued at the Paris Conservatoire. Her piano teachers there read as a roll-call of the great and good in the French piano tradition: Isidor Philipp, Lazare-Lévy and Marcel Ciampi. She took Simone Caussade's fugue class, as well as studying harmony (with André Bloch), orchestration and composition. Her ability and appetite for work brought her no fewer than seven premiers prix at the Conservatoire. She would return to the Conservatoire as a professor in 1967, remaining for a quarter-century.

Her first encounter with Messiaen came in May 1941 when he was released from a German POW camp in Silesia and could return to teach at the Conservatoire, as she later recalled: "all the students waited eagerly for this new teacher to arrive and finally he appeared with music case and badly swollen fingers, a result of his stay in the prisoner of war camp. He proceeded to the piano and produced the full score of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune and began to play all the parts. The whole class was captivated and stunned and everyone immediately fell in love with him."

Musical life in occupied Paris naturally took on non-musical symbolism, as in the defiant series of 10 concerts organised by Denise Tual, the founder of the "Concerts de la Pléiades", which mixed contemporary French music, neglected older works and pieces from abroad. Tual's commission to Messiaen resulted in the Visions de l'Amen, a huge cycle of seven pieces for two pianos first performed on 9 May 1943 – by the composer and Loriod – at a private run-through chez Madame Eminger-Sivade, where their audience included the publisher Gaston Gallimard, Claire Delbos (Messiaen's wife) and the composers Arthur Honegger, André Jolivet, Francis Poulenc and Gustave Samazeuilh. The "public" premiere (it was an invited audience) took place a day later.

The pattern of their lives was now set, Loriod's presence lubricating Messiaen's imagination; he once said that knowing she would be playing his music allowed him to indulge in "the greatest eccentricities". Work after work was dedicated to her: the massive Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus (1944), the Catalogue d'Oiseaux (1956–58), La fauvette des jardins (1970), Petites esquisses d'oiseaux (1985). Many of his other works had a prominent piano part, composed with Loriod in mind, among them the Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine, another Tual-Pléiades commission (1943–44), the Turangalîla-Symphonie, a commission from Serge Koussevitzky in Boston (1946–48) – its premiere, in 1949, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein, constituted her US debut – and Oiseaux exotiques (1955–56).

Messiaen's devout Catholicism found reflections of the divine everywhere he looked; birds thus became "God's musicians" and, with Loriot driving him around the countryside, he notated birdsong with a passion, incorporating it into his own compositions. He observed with delight that her surname is the French word for "oriole".

But Loriod did not live on a musical diet of Messiaen alone. In November 1945 she learned Bartók's Second Piano Concerto in eight days, for a performance in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the Orchestre National conducted by Manuel Rosenthal – an illustration of the "phenomenal memory" Pierre-Laurent Aimard observed. She premiered Book 2 of Pierre Boulez's two-piano Structures with the composer at Donaueschingen in 1961. Four years later she played 22 Mozart concertos in five weeks, with the Orchestre Lamoureux under a team of conductors (Bruno Maderna, Pierre Boulez and Louis Martin). And her recordings of Jean Barraqué's Sonata and Boulez's Second – both of which she had premiered – were landmarks at a time when almost no other pianist was involved in this repertoire. In the long run she was to win no fewer than 12 Grands Prix du Disque.

Messiaen, though, was the lodestar, and it was no surprise when in July 1961 – two years after the death of his first wife, Claire Delbos, who had long been institutionalised through mental illness – he and Loriod were married. They had been in love for years; their faith meant they could not act on it until his first wife had died.

He then moved into Loriod's flat in Montmartre, which they gradually expanded as neighbouring properties became available. They lived simply, amid Bibles and music, with Loriod acting as musical factotum as well as executant. Perhaps her most devoted act was the preparation of the vocal score of the opera Saint-François d'Assise (1975–83), a task requiring near-unimaginable perseverance and patience.

Loriod assured a Messiaen tradition not only through her own playing; his music was an important element in her teaching, too. As Paul Crossley observes: "Virtually all of us with reputations as Messiaen exponents were her pupils. I think, in many ways, we were her 'family'. Indeed, the last time I saw her she embraced me as 'mon petit Paul', as she had always called me although I was then almost 60 years old!"

Pierre-Laurent Aimard experienced the same dedication: "she was very warm about her students, very much committed to them – and perhaps to some extent we were substitutes for the children she never had. And of course she looked after several generations of students. She was passionate, as a teacher, too, and precise, always indicating carefully what should be done: she was clear in her markings and her remarks, always following her own convictions.

Crossley found that she "passed on all her secrets, all her magic, with a selflessness, a zeal and a good humour (there was nothing of the 'grande dame' about her) that were exemplary. Her teaching was always rigorous, technical and analytical – solid foundations on which one could build one's own interpretations."

Both men remark on her unquenchable energy, which found her continuing to perform into old age. She edited Messiaen's huge Traité de rythme, de couleur et d'ornithologie, posthumously published in seven volumes. She was also a respected figure on the juries of piano competitions, not least the triennial Concours Olivier Messiaen, but also at Aspen, Bayreuth, Leeds, Munich, Paris and elsewhere.

Although Loriot studied composition with Darius Milhaud until 1948, her own compositions are early and few in number. They include Grains de cendre (1946) for flute or ondes Martenot, soprano and piano, and the orchestral Pièce pour la souffrance; the only one performed in public seems to have been Trois Mélopées africaines for flute, ondes Martenot, piano and drum, heard at the Société Nationale in March 1945. But the experience must have come to her aid when, with George Benjamin, another Messiaen student, she orchestrated his incomplete final work, the Concert à quatre.

A cerebral haemorrhage three years ago brought an abrupt stop to Loriod's hitherto unflagging activity, and she had been in slow decline ever since. One of her two sisters, Jeanne, the leading player of the ondes Martenot, had drowned in 2001; but the other, Jacqueline, and the local priest were with her at the time of her death, in a retirement home to the north of Paris.

Martin Anderson

Yvonne Loriod, pianist; born Houilles, Seine-et-Oise, France, 20 January 1924; married 1961 Olivier Messiaen (died 1992); died St Denis, Seine-Saint Denis, France 17 May 2010.

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