Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 - 1992)
Poèmes pour Mi (1936/37) [30.58]*
Les offrandes oubliées (1930) [11.58]
Un sourire (1991) [9.52]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)*
Orchestra National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, 16-19 July 2008
NAXOS 8.572174 [52.48] 

Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi were originally written in 1936/37, setting his own poems for soprano voice and piano. He then orchestrated the work and this is the form in which it is recorded here. Messiaen's poems were written for his wife Claire Delbos (Mi). Though love songs dedicated to his wife, these are not romantic; instead Messiaen mixes spirituality, mystery and connection to the love of God, all in his own inimitable style. The music is richly worked but is not quite as over-wrought or as esoteric as some of his later pieces. You also feel that the subject matter means that Messiaen's writing is less exotically self-regarding than some of his later pieces.

On this disc they are performed by German soprano Anne Schwanewilms accompanied by the Orchestre de Lyon under their German-born conductor Jun Märkl. Schwanewilms has a lovely silvery voice with an element of steel in it. Not for nothing is she known as a Strauss soprano. She has a nice sense of line and beautifully spins out the long-breathed melodic lines. She probably doesn't quite sing the music with the 'pin-point accuracy' that the Gramophone describes Jane Manning as using. But musically there is little to complain about.

On the dramatic front, though, Schwanewilms's performance is a little more mixed. For a start, though her French is entirely creditable you can't help feeling that a French soprano would inflect the text more. The poems of the title are important and Messiaen's setting uses a lot of dramatic declamation, some of it reminiscent of Ravel in Shéhérezade. Here a larger dramatic voice is a help - one with more amplitude. In fact, Messiaen's ideal for the singer in the song-cycle was a grand, dramatic soprano. On his recording, Pierre Boulez uses the French dramatic soprano Francoise Pollet. It is this recording that gives you an idea what the ideal performance of the work might be, with Pollet's voice matching the lush extravagance of the music.

That said, Schwanewilms is entirely captivating in her silvery loveliness and I could be reasonably happy with this recording. Märkl and his orchestra accompany the soprano quite mellifluously, with some appealingly clear textures. The orchestra does not have the luxuriance or the sheer gloss of more well known ensembles; here though, they punch above their weight. And the clarity and transparency which they bring to the music is certainly a help.

Märkl and the orchestra follow the song-cycle with the purely orchestral Les Offrandes Oubliées, Messiaen's first published orchestra work. It was written in 1930, after completing his studies at the Conservatoire. The orchestra are beautifully poised in the outer two slow sections, but could perhaps bring a bit more ferocity to the middle section.

Finally we jump forward some sixty years, to 1991, when Messiaen wrote Un sourire - a piece in homage to Mozart for the composer's centenary. Charming and elegant, it makes a suitable conclusion to the disc.

Though Naxos include reasonable notes in the booklet, there are no texts to the poems, evidently for copyright reasons, nor are there any for download on the Naxos web-site. This makes things rather difficult for those who do not know the songs.

This recital is well thought out and well put together. It’s also performed very stylishly. It wouldn't make it on to my ideal recording list, but at Naxos price it is ideally placed to enable people to experiment and try the repertoire; just a pity that the texts are missing.

Robert Hugill