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Regards sur l’infini
Katharine Dain (soprano)
Sam Armstrong (piano)
rec. August 2020, Concertgebouw De Vereeniging, Concertzaal, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

This is a recording born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, with these two musicians finding themselves with no concerts in prospect, and a great deal of extra time during quarantine lockdown for rehearsing and exploring the repertoire on this CD. The central work is Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, and the surrounding pieces are “a collection of songs both timeless and highly relevant to the world’s current state of suspension - both an escape from a global crisis and a response to it.”

Beautifully recorded, exquisitely performed and presented tastefully and with refinement, this is an easy disc to love. All of the texts are printed in the booklet in French and English, though this leads me to my only criticism of the layout, which omits the track numbers in the text pages, making orientation a little awkward. The booklet and digipak sleeve also has sensitive photography by Jasper Grijpink, a musician who also takes analogue photos with old equipment and develops his prints manually. This all suits the atmosphere of the programme, which is of largely lyrical and relatively introverted material, though there is also plenty of passion and numerous fine climaxes such as with Debussy’s De rêve.

Whatever the repertoire, soprano Katharine Dain is perfection itself on this recording. She has plenty of credits under her belt, being in demand for opera, orchestral and chamber performance, winner of the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Competition and much more. Her tone is light but not insubstantial, flexible, expressive and colourful, with a natural vibrato that you can listen to forever. Sam Armstrong’s accompaniment is sensitive and equally expressively communicative, an ideal mirror to Dain’s voice. The recording perspective is not too close, allowing that big Nijmegen acoustic to form its space around the musicians.

All of this synergy goes into a superbly curated programme of French music, ranging from amorous classics to songs in which almost nothing seems to happen, such as Claire Delbos’s Ai-je pui l’appeler de l’ombre, which acts as an entrée into the central Poèmes pour Mi. Spaciousness and that distinctive French transparency and luminousness of harmony and vocal line infuse this whole experience. There are of course some darker and weightier moments, but for anyone fearful of ‘modern’ music this is actually a good place to dip your toes. Dramatic songs such as Épouvante or Terror in the Messiaen cycle can be followed with the text, so you know exactly which moods and actions are being expressed, and you just know that the composer will follow a setting of words such as “Comme une vomissure triangulaire” with something exquisitely beautiful, as indeed he does. Katharine Dain has the chops to deliver all of these contrasts with needle-sharp intonation, excellent diction and superlative control.

This has been something of a surprise musical benediction at a time when summer has faded into memory and a winter approaches with the promise of further lockdown restrictions. This is the kind of recording that reminds us that there is not only beauty in melancholy, but also a wealth of inspiration. Katharine Dain writes, “We hope that these passionate and introspective songs, all deeply personal responses to intense experience, can act similarly on anyone listening.” Well, it works on me, every time.

Dominy Clements

Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
From: Quatre Instants (2002)
Parfum de l’instant [4:07]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Chanson de la déportée (1945) [3:02]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
From: Proses lyriques (1892-1893)
De rêve [6:19]
De gréve [3:32]
Claire DELBOS (1906-1959)
From: L’âme en bourgean (1937)
Ai-je pui l’appeler de l’ombre [3:13]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Poèmes pour Mi (1937) [
Dors [1:55]
De fleurs [5:34]
De soir [4:10]
From: Quatre mélodies (1943)
Regards sur l’infini [3:47]
Il pleut (1986) [4:28]

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