No doubt put off a little by the demands of Harawi
too young and daft to appreciate it properly, I have to admit
to having had a certain avoidance
of Messiaen’s vocal music. Culminating in the great opera Saint François
there is no doubting Messiaen’s contribution to just about
any conventional musical genre you can name, though his use of the voice is arguably
rather interchangeable with his instrumental style other than when using it as
a vehicle for text.
Related in theme by love and faith, mortality and eternity, these are three significant
works by Messiaen. The main piece here, Poèmes pour Mi
written for voice and piano, and
sets nine mystical texts which were written
by the composer as highly personal love songs to his first wife, the violinist
Claire Delbos. The word ‘Mi’ in the title refers to the note E, the
highest open string on the violin. As you might expect for a set of love songs,
almost every part of this cycle is infused with gentle lyricism, the sensation
of warm sunlight, and a rhapsodic and intimate feel of romantic expression. As
you would also expect with Messiaen, these feelings are also connected with religious
and spiritual mysticism, and gratitude for the gifts of nature and love. Darker
moods are also explored, with a violent and prescient vision of lost memories
Even where the couple are compared to warriors
in Les deux guerriers
, the struggle rises to blinding ecstasy as God is
approached from out of the pit of evil.
Recordings of Poèmes pour Mi
are not exactly thick on the ground,
and while I don’t have Boulez’s Deutsche Grammophon recording to
hand for comparison I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed by this release.
Anne Schwanewilms’ voice soars elegantly and with grace and ease of the
sumptuous orchestral accompaniment. It can also pack a considerable dramatic
punch where the music demands. German in origin, I can’t say I felt any
lack of idiom in her French pronunciation, and have to declare myself convinced.
The balance of the recording is also excellent, with the voice forward of the
orchestra without dominating unnaturally.
The remaining two works are both orchestral. Les offrandes oubliées
Forgotten Offerings’ was Messiaen’s first published orchestral work.
It is a beautifully expressive symphonic meditation on Christ’s loving
sacrifice to redeem the sins of humanity. Un sourire
, ‘A Smile’ might
be expected to be a little more down to earth, responding to a commission from
conductor Marek Janowski to write a piece ‘in the spirit of Mozart’.
Avoiding any attempt at stylistic references, the piece pays homage to what he
saw as Mozart’s ever-smiling attitude to life’s many hardships. Both
of these works are well played by the Orchestre National de Lyon, and while this
recording of Les offrandes oubliées
might not knock the more impassioned
version with Myung-Whun Chung on DG from its perch it is certainly a worthwhile
addition to this programme. I do love the stillness Jun Märkl achieves in
his string sound in Un sourire
, and I find this ironically a more moving
performance than the one which supplements Marek Janowski’s Turangalila
As an introduction to Messiaen’s music this has to be a fine place to start,
and as a supplement to all that organ, piano, and huge scale orchestral stuff,
the accessible and in places unimaginably gorgeous Poèmes pour Mi
an essential purchase. Messiaen himself said that this work was a key to the
rest of his orchestral composition, and this fine disc currently has to be one
of the best places to take the plunge.