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Messiaen: Harawi / Tony Arnold, Jacob Greenberg

Messiaen / Arnold / Greenberg
Release Date: 06/25/2013 
Label:  New Focus   Catalog #: 131   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Olivier Messiaen
Performer:  Tony ArnoldJacob Greenberg
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MESSIAEN Cantéyodjayâ. Harawi: Songs of Love and Death 1 1 Tony Arnold (sop); Jacob Greenberg (pn) NEW FOCUS 131 (70:24 Text and Translation)

Harawi, the last of Messiaen’s song cycles, was composed in the summer of 1945; Cantéyodjayâ was written in August 1949, near the end of his stay at Tanglewood. Read more Both works have in common a somewhat exotic influence: Harawi was inspired by Quechua songs of love and death from the Andes in South America, Cantéyodjayâ by (so the liner notes tell us) “varied Hindu tropes.” Regardless of the influence, however, we must judge the music on its own merits, and to my ears Cantéyodjayâ overstays its welcome. Not only is its harmonic language dissonant to the point of sourness, but the music’s development is rather tame and, to my ears, not terribly interesting.

Harawi, on the other hand, is absolutely mesmerizing; the music moves slowly, à la Erik Satie’s Gymnopèdies, and it has much in common with some of the passages in Satie’s Socrate. The notes say that the song cycle represents the “cruel and ecstatic journey” of two lovers on the other side of the world, and in the eighth song, “Adieu,” Messiaen shows the lovers embracing their physical deaths. They rush into the forest and the great unknown, encounter a green dove and a staircase to the heavens. The cycle ends with the lovers merging “with nature and the dark stars in heaven.”

Soprano Tony Arnold, who has apparently made a career specializing in modern music, has a beautiful voice, lightweight but creamy, and her diction isn’t too bad by modern standards. Her one drawback—and you hear this a lot in modern sopranos, particularly those who do a lot of modern music—is that when she pushes the volume, an uneven flutter appears. I was also surprised by some of her low notes: though certainly not in the contralto range, they have more solidity than I’m used to hearing in a light soprano such as hers. In the third song, “Montagnes” (Mountains), Messiaen resorts to some of the spiky dissonance one hears in Cantéyodjayâ but here, divorced of the elongated structure of the later piece and accompanying a singer, the composer builds interest and brings the voice in (largely in strophes, often on the same note) to act as an “anchor” and thus defuse somewhat the effect of those dissonant keyboard passages. A running, syncopated bass line opens “Doundou Tchil,” over which the soprano whispers those words in rhythm. When the soprano’s melody begins, it first mirrors the initial rhythm and then plays against it. It’s easy to hear, in this piece particularly, the influence of South American music on Messiaen; one wonders if he was familiar with some of the music from that region, of the sort to which North Americans would be exposed by Yma Sumac some four years later.

In the sixth song, “Piroutcha’s Love,” Arnold sings very softly, encompassing a high B in head voice (gorgeous!), and her delineation of this text expressing the tenderness of love for a young girl is deeply moving. The unsteadiness still obtrudes occasionally as she pressures the voice in loud passages, but there is no denying that this is a great vocal artist who knows what she’s doing. “Planetary Repetition” is just that, a repeated chant on the pitch of E while the piano plays ruminative low bass passages, then both piano and voice liven up for high-lying passages where Arnold sings melismas reminiscent of Middle Eastern music before returning to plainchant. It ends with a livelier rhythmic base and almost syncopated vocal lines higher up in the soprano’s range.

The remaining songs follow similar patterns to those above, but I was pleased by the fact that Messiaen did not really repeat any effects in the music, and some of those songs, in whole or part, have some really lovely melodies in them. If I have one caveat about Arnold’s singing, it is only that the essentially round, soft quality of her voice sometimes inhibits her from “giving out” in a really exciting way on some of these rhythms, but that is a small complaint indeed in the face of such largely beautiful singing.

Of competing versions, I’ve heard the one by Charlotte Riedijk accompanied by Joanna MacGregor, and it isn’t as good as this; there’s also a version on EMI by Michèle Command, who did such a splendid job with the songs of Koechlin (see my review elsewhere in this issue), but it only appears to be currently available in a massive 14-CD set on EMI. Dorothy Dorow on BIS gives a good, workmanlike performance, but to be honest, her voice wasn’t as pretty as Arnold’s. I can most definitely recommend Command on the basis of her other work, but for a single-disc version of this attractive and fascinating song cycle, Arnold’s is the one to get.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Harawi by Olivier Messiaen
Performer:  Tony Arnold (Soprano), Jacob Greenberg (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945; France 
Cantéyodjayâ by Olivier Messiaen
Performer:  Jacob Greenberg (Piano)
Written: 1948 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Outstanding November 30, 2013 By Stephen H. (Muir Beach, CA) See All My Reviews "I found this recording by accident. Having heard one section of the Harawi by another singer, I was intrigued and searched for a recording of the whole work. It turned out to be a wonderful find, and for me, a fresh discovery;composer and performers were all new to me. Great composing, screeching and plinking! The performers collaborated wonderfully." Report Abuse
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