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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
L’amour et la foi
Trois petits 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 and Chamber Orchestra/Marcus Creed
rec. 2014, Danish Radio Studio 2; Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen.
OUR RECORDINGS 6.220612 SACD [59.03]

Listening to this extraordinary and oh-so-original music I was reminded how Messiaen seems to exist outside the Western musical tradition. He often proceeds by repetition with no conventional development. Form is unfixed and orchestral, or perhaps one should say with these works, ensemble, colours are uniquely his own. On this CD all this is made particularly clear in the large-scale, three-movement Trois petits liturgies de la Presénce divine. The CD's title, translated as ‘Love and Faith’, applies very much to this work.

The disc boasts: ‘This recording features Messiaen’s original version for 16 solo strings and 18 sopranos”. As I was coming new to this work I can’t speak of a personal understanding of any other version but the scoring also uses piano, ondes martenot, celesta, vibraphone and percussion. It was written in the darkest days of the Second World War but is so overpowering joyous, especially in the second movement (‘Séquence du verbe, cantique divin’), that you would never know it. When it does not bounce with Messiaen’s typically inspired gamelan-type ostinati and rhythms, it stands poised in a world somewhere between the stars and eternity. All the time, especially in movement one (‘Antienne de la conversation intérieure’), bird songs lash the vocal lines just like the mistle thrush I hear all day in my garden, so varied so strong and positive. The third movement (‘Psalmodie de l’ubiquité par Amour’), which is over seventeen minutes long, sounds as if it once formed part of the famous ‘Turangalîla Symphonie’ which had yet been composed when this work was being written. The ondes martenot which Messiaen made all his own would probably sound quite ‘naff’ in the hands of most composers. Here its ghostly presence acts as a spiritual tool of uplifting bliss. It slinks between voices and strings like a musical version of the Holy Spirit.

The texts by the composer himself as was mostly the case, are non-biblical but seem to be a modern extension of the Old Testament ‘Song of Songs’ in its vague eroticisms. For example “By a kiss-throw your head overreaches the picture /divine landscape”. The work hovers around A major although often uses pentatonic harmonies. This key Messiaen associated with the colour blue and with 'serene joy'. It is then exotic and exhilarating. My only quibble with the performance/recording is that the words are not always clearly heard and enunciated.

There are umpteen recordings of the motet O Sacrum convivium. This is perhaps the only text set by Messiaen which doubles up on settings from the renaissance and more recent times. I have no intention of drawing your attention to others but if you wanted to play to the ‘unconvinced’ this is as good a version as you could find. It possesses beauty, poise and an ideal vocal balance and blend. It passes the test every time.

There have also been several recordings of the Cinq Rechants so I will not list them. These are uniquely fascinating songs although refrains (‘rechants’) seems a remarkably modest title for such highly complex and virtuosic writing.

The word Turangalîla is a Sanskrit word appertaining to certain rhythmic formulas. The text of Cinq Rechants was compiled by Messiaen in Sanskrit and French but it’s meaning is difficult to pin down. Christian Hildebrandt in his helpful notes quotes the composer when he says "This is a love song. This single fact is enough to guide the performers". There is a strong connection with the Tristan and Isolde legend, which had haunted the composer at this time as in his song cycle Harawi of 1945. There are twelve solo voices and they must make a wide variety of percussive noises as well as using a broad palette of other vocal techniques. Again there is a strong sense of disguised eroticism “my bouquet all undone is shining pink shutters”.

The CD comes with full and clear texts and the essay in French and English with lavish colour photographs. The booklet is tucked inside the neat cardboard casing as is becoming the norm. As for the performances, you are left in no doubt that Marcus Creed extracts from the singers especially, every necessary nuance that each moment of the Cinq Rechant requires. Despite that, whether it’s as great a work as many suppose is to my mind still open to question.

Gary Higginson