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Reviews: Messiaen: Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine, O sacrum convivium!, Cinq Rechants - Creed

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Review by larsmusik August 6, 2015 (2 of 2 found this review helpful)
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This album is comprised of three important works for vocal ensemble that epitomize three distinctive styles within which the composer worked during his lifetime. It should be of interest to everyone who finds Messiaen’s music rewarding. Furthermore, these are all very good performances, captured in excellent high-resolution recordings.

O sacrum convivium!, from 1937, is the most conventional of the three works. A motet for unaccompanied choir, its Latin liturgical text celebrates the Eucharist and was attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. As such, it has been set to a cappella polyphony by dozens of composers going back to Renaissance times. Its Gregorian chant melody is also well known. Messiaen did not use that melody, nor did he consciously evoke the techniques of Renaissance composers. Like his contemporaries Poulenc and Duruflé, he employed gently dissonant tonal harmonies and sweetly flowing melodic lines to suggest both otherworldly peace and modern human engagement. It was the only text from the traditional Catholic liturgy that Messiaen ever set.

On this recording, the motet is placed between the Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine (1943) and Cinq Rechants (1948), almost as a palate-cleanser. The Trois petites liturgies receives a fair number of performances today and has been recorded many times. Perhaps that is because its orchestral timbre-collection is so reminiscent of Messiaen’s other “greatest hits” including the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Many Messiaen fingerprints such as bird-calls, exotic “Hindu” rhythms, and the use of celeste, solo piano, vibraphone, and ondes Martenot help shape the color-language of this work. The female chorus sings a text by the composer echoing his lifelong journey as a Christian mystic: there are numerous references to nature, to colors as emblems of spiritual power and presence, and to the “end of time” in all senses. I personally found these performances nearly faultless. Crucial balances were struck and maintained, while ondes Martenot wrangler Thomas Bloch and (especially) pianist Marianna Shirinyan contributed suitably cool, “natural” work throughout—birdsong is, after all, not so much an expressive act as a near-involuntary function. Only a couple of tentative, too-careful choral entrances and one odd tempo-shift in the first movement (which may be indicated in the score—I wasn’t able to check it) reminded me that mere humans were involved.

Yet the strongest performance on the recording may be that of Cinq Rechants. This groundbreaking composition for 12 solo vocalists is at once the most difficult to “hear” and the most nearly unique in Messiaen’s oeuvre. Between 1945 and 1948 he explored the bond between love and death in three works—Harawi, Turangalîla, and Cinq Rechants—working principally with the myth of Tristan and Isolde. Although Christian symbolism is abandoned in these works, critics have rightly noted that the concept of Love-Death is central to Christianity. As Robert Sherlaw Johnson writes in his useful introduction to Messiaen’s music, “all true acts of love involve sacrifice.” Messiaen’s original text for this five-movement work employs both French and a Sanskrit-like language of the composer’s own invention. At times the words are used as rhythmic generators, much in the manner of Bharata Natyam, Hindu classical dance. Likewise the vocal textures and techniques show enormous variety, moving from extreme “hyperpolyphonic” sections to unisons and drones. There is considerable beauty locked within this music, much of which is only revealed with repeated listening.

Congratulations to conductor Marcus Creed, the various Danish National ensembles involved, and to OUR Recordings for supporting this project. Preben Iwan produced, edited, mixed, and mastered the recording from DXD source material.

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