Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A New Recording of Messiaen's "Poems pour Mi"

Olivier Messiaen was an extraordinary composer by any standard. His was an exceptional talent; his music combined an extra-sensory sensitivity to the orchestrated potential of the music in his head with a harmonically and rhythmically unique stance that make his music immediately identifiable as coming from his pen and no other.

His music evolved over the many years of his career. There are the first works, which established his reputation and found him developing his musical vocabulary in a number of different directions simultaneously, from the highly contrasting modern mystical rhapsody meets music hall meets world music a la Messiaen of his Turangalila Symphony to the probing mysticism of Poems pour Mi. The second period corresponds to his intense interest in bird song and its transformation into brilliantly orchestrated, sublime stutters of sound. Then there is the final period, where he simply reaches an almost other worldly mastery of mystical utterance and achieves a gloriously terminal synthesis of stylistic traits with a complete command over the forces at hand. His orchestrations were always superb. In the end they have an almost uncanny presence.

Each period is totally worthwhile in its own right. With that in mind we turn to the latest Naxos release in their Messiaen series, Jun Markl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon in a recording of the aforementioned Poems pour mi as well as Messiaen's first published orchestral work Les offrandes oubliees and a lesser known, rather brief later work, Un sourire.

Poemes pour mi has been recorded numerous times and there are many versions still in print. I am not familiar with some, but the Boulez/Cleveland version and the Messaien-conducted version are both definitive. On the other hand Markl's version is quite worthy. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms has an almost operatic intensity to her interpretation that puts this recording towards the top of the pile for me. The orchestral balance is very good and Markl brings out the mystical transparency of the score quite well. His Les offrandes oubliees revels empathetically in the alternatingly quiet rapture and turbulent outbursts of the score. Un sourire has meditative moments and some of that extraordinary blinding light of punctuated percussiveness typical of the late period.

In short these may not be the most definitive recordings out there, but they are close and offer prime Messiaen masterworks of the earlier period. The addition of Un Sourire and the Naxos price tag makes this volume especially attractive.

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