Notes and Editorial Reviews
Poèmes pour Mi.
Les offrandes oubliées. Un sourire
Jun Märkl, cond; Anne Schwanewilms (sop);
Lyon Natl O
NAXOS 8.572174 (52:48)
Olivier Messiaen dedicated the song cycle
Poèmes pour Mi
to his first wife, the ill-fated violinist Claire Delbos. The original version for soprano and piano was composed in 1936, and the orchestral version completed a year later. It is an early work, dating from before the onset of his wife’s mental degeneration. The poems by Messiaen himself are expressions of love, but are not entirely secular. Their imagery is tied up with his two lifelong wellsprings of inspiration: the wonders of the natural world and man’s relationship with God. (The poems and translations do not appear with this issue, unfortunately: David McCleery’s useful booklet note provides a précis of each poem.) Lasting 30 minutes, the work sets nine poems and requires a soprano voice of Wagnerian power, particularly in the orchestral arrangement.
Poèmes pour Mi
is unquestionably one of the great orchestral song cycles of the 20th century, up there with Ravel’s
(to which its perfumed textures bear the occasional resemblance). The cycle encompasses drama, tenderness, awesome power, and floating moments of sweetness. The vocal line is littered with intervals that are tricky to negotiate—tritones, for example, and sudden lurching falls of an octave, yet the harmonies are completely tonal, while the orchestral color owes a great deal to Debussy.
I have been entranced by this music ever since I stumbled upon the 1973 Argo recording by Felicity Palmer with the BBC SO under Boulez. That is now a collector’s item and, to my knowledge, has never been transferred to CD. Boulez did record the work again for DG, this time with the Cleveland Orchestra and French soprano Françoise Pollet. Theirs is a strong, clear, cool reading. This one by Schwanewilms and Märkl is something else. McCleery’s note claims the work “is not a romantic or sentimental expression of love,” but if ever a song cycle could handle some heart it is this one, and that’s exactly what it gets on this disc. Schwanewilms’ lush soprano is a seamless instrument from top to bottom—Messiaen gives both extremes a workout—radiating ardor at every dynamic level. Her magisterial performance is matched in warmth by the Lyon Orchestra under its young German conductor (a team that has recently given us some highly rated Debussy). Moreover, Schwanewilms’ Crespin-sized voice is perfectly balanced with the orchestral forces.
The same high expressive standards mark the companion works, both written in the composer’s most tonal idiom, even though they date from either end of his career. I had not previously heard
(“A smile”), a short piece written in 1991 for the anniversary of Mozart’s death. It is not remotely Mozartian or smiley in the scherzo sense, but a gentle tone poem in ternary form with a sprightly middle section.
To sum up, this is the best recording around of a mesmerizing masterwork, well worth acquiring by Messiaen fans and lovers of great singing alike. Want List material, in fact.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
No doubt put off a little by the demands of Harawi when too young and daft to appreciate it properly, I have to admit to having had a certain avoidance of Messiaen’s vocal music. Culminating in the great opera Saint François d'Assise there is no doubting Messiaen’s contribution to just about any conventional musical genre you can name, though his use of the voice is arguably rather interchangeable with his instrumental style other than when using it as a vehicle for text.
Related in theme by love and faith, mortality and eternity, these are three significant works by Messiaen. The main piece here, Poèmes pour Mi was originally written for voice and piano, and sets nine mystical texts which were written by the composer as highly personal love songs to his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos. The word ‘Mi’ in the title refers to the note E, the highest open string on the violin. As you might expect for a set of love songs, almost every part of this cycle is infused with gentle lyricism, the sensation of warm sunlight, and a rhapsodic and intimate feel of romantic expression. As you would also expect with Messiaen, these feelings are also connected with religious and spiritual mysticism, and gratitude for the gifts of nature and love. Darker moods are also explored, with a violent and prescient vision of lost memories in L’Épouvante Even where the couple are compared to warriors in Les deux guerriers, the struggle rises to blinding ecstasy as God is approached from out of the pit of evil.
Recordings of Poèmes pour Mi are not exactly thick on the ground, and while I don’t have Boulez’s Deutsche Grammophon recording to hand for comparison I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed by this release. Anne Schwanewilms’ voice soars elegantly and with grace and ease of the sumptuous orchestral accompaniment. It can also pack a considerable dramatic punch where the music demands. German in origin, I can’t say I felt any lack of idiom in her French pronunciation, and have to declare myself convinced. The balance of the recording is also excellent, with the voice forward of the orchestra without dominating unnaturally.
The remaining two works are both orchestral. Les offrandes oubliées or ‘The Forgotten Offerings’ was Messiaen’s first published orchestral work. It is a beautifully expressive symphonic meditation on Christ’s loving sacrifice to redeem the sins of humanity. Un sourire, ‘A Smile’ might be expected to be a little more down to earth, responding to a commission from conductor Marek Janowski to write a piece ‘in the spirit of Mozart’. Avoiding any attempt at stylistic references, the piece pays homage to what he saw as Mozart’s ever-smiling attitude to life’s many hardships. Both of these works are well played by the Orchestre National de Lyon, and while this recording of Les offrandes oubliées might not knock the more impassioned version with Myung-Whun Chung on DG from its perch it is certainly a worthwhile addition to this programme. I do love the stillness Jun Märkl achieves in his string sound in Un sourire, and I find this ironically a more moving performance than the one which supplements Marek Janowski’s Turangalila on RCA.
As an introduction to Messiaen’s music this has to be a fine place to start, and as a supplement to all that organ, piano, and huge scale orchestral stuff, the accessible and in places unimaginably gorgeous Poèmes pour Mi are an essential purchase. Messiaen himself said that this work was a key to the rest of his orchestral composition, and this fine disc currently has to be one of the best places to take the plunge.
-- Dominy Clements, ClassicsToday.com