Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) L’amour et la foi Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine (1943) [34:49] O sacrum convivium! (1937) [4:35] Cinq Rechants for 12 solo voices (1948) [19:23]
Marianna Shirinyan (piano); Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot)
Danish National Vocal Ensemble
Danish National Concert Choir, Danish National Chamber Orchestra/Marcus Creed
rec. 2014, Danish Radio, Studio 2; Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen, OUR RECORDINGS 6.220612 SACD [59:03]
Gary Higginson's review of this disc described the works very well, so I will concentrate on the performances and recording. First of all, these are some of the most gorgeous recordings ever made of this music. The sound is indeed sumptuous and very present even in two channels, the way I auditioned the disc on my standard CD equipment. This benefits the wonderful motet, O sacrum convivium!, which uses Thomas Aquinas’s Latin text. I have heard this work both live and in a number of recordings, but I cannot think of another performance that is as precisely pitched and well integrated as this one. The Danish National Concert Choir has made many recordings, but this one could serve as a calling card.
Where one can observe the Latin text well in the motet, the French in the Little Liturgies is more problematic. Although that work was recorded in a studio, the words do not come through very clearly even when following the text in the disc’s booklet. Does this really matter? You can simply bathe in the rich sound and enjoy the sensuousness of the piece. The balance between the sopranos and strings seems ideal and the percussion only occasionally covers the voices. The ondes Martenot can be heard but is discreet enough not to sound like something from outer space. Some reviewers have found the Danish choir’s rendition to be too cool and not ecstatic enough. For me there is enough ecstasy in the score to take care of itself without overdoing it. I compared this new version with a recording from 1990 by the London Sinfonietta Chorus under Terry Edwards (Virgin), containing the same programme as this disc, and that one seemed accurate but rather ordinary and lacking in warmth. One could understand the text better there, but at the cost of making a convincing case for the work. I did not notice any difference in the version used in that recording, as this new one claims to be the original version for 16 solo strings and 18 sopranos. In any case, for me the Little Liturgies can seem rather repetitive and indeed over-extended. This composition points the way to the massive Turangalīla Symphony, the composer’s masterpiece from this period with its important role for piano and ondes Martenot.
Cinq Rechants, on the other hand, was completed about the same time as the Turangalīla Symphony and forms the third of a trilogy of works on the theme of secular love as embodied by Tristan and Isolde. The first is the song-cycle for soprano and piano Harawi, while Turangalīla forms the second part of the trilogy. Cinq Rechants is one of the twentieth-century’s most challenging vocal compositions and one of Messiaen’s most important works. Even though the text is a combination of French and a Sanskrit-like language the composer created, clarity of diction is absolutely essential for the piece to make sense. I’m afraid this new account fails here, as the sumptuous recording in a church — so appropriate for the motet — precludes total appreciation of the text. Also, here I find the solo voices of the Danish Vocal Ensemble to be too heavy and studied. Those of the London Sinfonietta Voices on the Virgin disc are lighter and clearer, but leave much to be desired in projecting the dramatic elements. Of the recordings I have heard, I prefer one by the BBC Singers from 1999 on a CD accompanying a BBC Music magazine, where the drier acoustics of London’s Barbican were actually an asset.
My reservations about the performance and recording of Cinq Rechants, notwithstanding, I have a great deal of respect for what Marcus Creed and his forces have contributed to Messiaen’s view of “love and faith”. I am particularly taken with their account of O sacrum convivium! Likewise, when I want to wallow in the Trois petites liturgies I will turn to this new recording.