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CD Review

Oliver Messiaen

Chants de Terre et de Ciel

(Songs of the Earth and Sky)
  • Trois Mélodies
  • La morte du nombre
  • Vocalise
  • Chants de terre et de ciel
  • Thème et variations pour violin et piano
Suzie Leblanc, soprano
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Laura Andriani, violin
Robert Kortgaard, piano
Atma Classique ACD2-2564
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Messiaen is a composer whose every work – every note almost – is instantly recognizable. On first hearing the four shortish and one longer pieces for soprano, tenor, violin and piano on this CD you're in no doubt about their origins. But the flamboyance and open, ecstatic qualities with which we are familiar in Messiaen's later works do not strike you so forcibly here. This is music from the composer's early years.

Specifically, for the composer's centenary in 2008, the ever-enterprising Atma stable gathered here a series of small scale gems intimately tied up with a specific and intense time in Messiaen's life: the few years in the 1930s during his marriage to Claire Delbos. Indeed he wrote the Thème et variations for her. An excellent musician herself, she and Messiaen performed Bartó's sonatas for violin and piano together in the '30s. Their influence is audible in these pieces, particularly in the harmonies and taut tempi. Messiaen was always reluctant to expose much about these years – except in the works we hear on this CD, and the other works closely associated with Delbos, particularly the Poèmes pour Mi ("Mi" was Delbos), which dates from the same period (1936-38). This is because they were such difficult years: Delbos became progressively more incapacitated; what began with such promise degenerated quickly.

Ironically, the Trois Mélodies and La morte du nombre in particular demonstrate an exuberance, a potential and an optimism (in the sense that Debussy's more contained sonorities do) which was short-lived. But the sense of uplift and care-free confidence are unmistakable:

Pourquoi les oiseaux de l'air

Pourquoi les roses de l'Êté
Pourquoi les chansons du Printemps

And the soloists here more than do justice to the young man's hope, though in fact the Trois Mélodies were written (in 1930) in memory of Messiaen's mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage, who had died of tuberculosis in 1927. The singers' styles are clear and ebullient – there are as much purpose and determination in their tempi and attack as there are sensitivity and wistfulness. The piano while sounding light and airy is crisp and incisive. The tone of the whole is neither plaintive nor joyous. Yet the pathos and regret are captured without maudlin. This is ideal for the spirit of the music. Nor is it technique alone that conveys the perhaps mixed emotions that Messiaen was exploring. Neither any kind of empathy with them. Rather a businesslike attention to the music's movement, color and inner logic. This is just how it should be played.

La morte du nombre is an anomaly: it's rare in using a male soloist, something Messiaen later did in his opera, Saint Francis. At only nine minutes, it nevertheless has the intensity and richness of an early Bach cantata. It's called a cantata and is again to words by the composer. Again, too, the performers use concentration and measured interpretation, not spectacle. That works very well.

In Vocalise we see the more mature Messiaen and the interests in non-European, pagan and natural sound worlds that would dominate his later compositional life. Yet the playing of Andriani (violin) and Kortgaard (piano) is particularly tender, sweet and concentrated. Like the other performers on this CD, they are closely miked such that we feel very present as the tonalities of this short (barely four minutes) piece prefigure some of Messiaen's later highly original sounds.

The centerpiece of this CD is the demanding and inspiring Chants de terre et de ciel. Effectively a companion work to Poèmes pour Mi, these six brief movements were composed at a time when Messiaen could still make an unequivocal affirmation of his love for both Delbos and of his christian faith. They were conceived (the composer wrote both words and music) for an extrovert, almost Wagnerian, singer. Leblanc, associated with Baroque vocal roles, works well in the Chants, though. This is probably because she is at home in highly expressive idioms where phrasing, pauses, rubato and almost imperceptible changes in tempo mid-measure are the norm; where a nuanced idiom whose conventions we all know counts more than a personalized impressionistic palette. In particular Leblanc and Kortgaard have succeeded in conveying the unity which Messiaen wished to explore between sexual and divine love – and indeed with filial love: the composer's son, Pascal, is present in the third, fourth and by implication (Rèsurrection – Pascal implies an Easter birth) sixth songs. Above all, soprano and pianist exude optimism when tinged (tainted?) with innocence. One feels, though, that they, as performers, know that it doesn't last, where Messiaen did not. Surely (and paradoxically) what the composer actually intended!

Not all these works are currently available elsewhere. Certainly not grouped like this; the CD affords us an unambiguous insight into a Messiaen with whom we are possibly a little unfamiliar: someone who was still struggling to understand and make the most of the blows which life can deal. Yet who was determined neither to wallow in loss nor exploit it for purely artistic gain. But to distill it: the poignant Bail avec Mi [tr.6] from the Chants… a pledge with my wife, is a good example. The success of the singers is to have extracted that which could apply only to Messiaen and render it accessible to us as listeners. Not by depersonalizing it in any way, not by drawing its teeth. But by approaching each of these five works with a determination to convey to us that emotions do not have to be paraded in order to be appreciated. The sound is clean and close; the booklet helpful with texts in French and English. A welcome contribution to the Messiaen year. Recommended.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey