Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Poèmes pour Mi (1936)* [30:58]
Les offrandes oubliées (1930) [11:58]
Un sourire (1991) [9:52]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)*
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, 16-19 July 2008
NAXOS 8.572174 [52:48] 

No doubt put off a little by the demands of Harawi when 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 d'Assise 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 was originally 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 in L’Épouvante 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 or ‘The 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 on RCA.

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 are 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.

Dominy Clements