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Fanfare (US) "What a tremendous disc this is! And what great, forward sound! Highly recommended"

May 12, 2015

Lynn René Bayley

 MESSIAEN Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine1. O sacrum convivium. Cinq Rechants  Marcus Creed, cond; 1Marianna Shirinyan (pn); 1Thomas Block (ondes Martenot); Danish Natl Vocal Ens; Danish Natl Concert Ch; Danish Natl CO  OUR RECORDINGS 6220612 (59:03  original languages only)

This disc of choral music by Olivier Messiaen only include the texts of these pieces in French and Latin, the originals used by the composer. Well, thankfully music is an international language.
The first of the Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine starts in such a way that it sounds as if it were the middle of the piece, not the opening. The choral writing focuses on the sopranos and is accompanied by a small body of strings and piano, both of which play discretely from each other. In fact, the sparseness of the writing is unusual in any sense for liturgical vocal music. So too the use of the ondes Martenot, a keyboard version of the Theremin. Messiaen himself called this trilogy “color music,” referring to the fact that he saw colors when composing. I’d say that it falls somewhere stylistically between his orchestral and piano music of the same period (1945). It is indeed colorful and fascinating music, but to my ears not moving in either a religious or an emotional way. This does not make it bad music, just objective, which to a certain degree is better. Too often, music written to religious texts can try too hard to be “mystical,” becoming soft or mawkish in the process. Messiaen avoids this here. I particularly liked the second piece, “Sequence du Verbe, cantique divin,” for its tremendous energy and relatively attractive melodic construction. This is a piece that could easily become a staple in church services of high mass, were those churches amenable to the use of modern music. It almost sounds like a more modern, wilder version of Catulli Carmina. I was, however, disappointed by the way he wrote for the ondes Martenot, producing nothing more than swoops of sound. Well, heck, Olivier, any amateur can do that! I would have thought you’d have written something challenging for the instrument. Apparently, France didn’t have an ondes Martenot player on the same high level as Theremin master Clara Rockmore. The third piece, “Psalmodie de l’ubiquité par Amour,” uses a sort of forwards-backwards motion in the rhythm that resembles part of the Turingalîla Symphony. It is also longer than the first two pieces combined (by 25 seconds, but still, longer). Part of the music’s charm, but also a weakness, is its episodic nature. You almost feel as if the music is coming to a close in places, but it’s just switching gears. If you’re not too hung up on form, however, you’ll find yourself enjoying it tremendously.
O sacrum convivium, one of Messiaen’s earliest works, is more conventional in construction and set to an old, pre-existing Latin text. Now, this music is lovely and atmospheric in the best tradition of liturgical music. Except for a certain amount of altered chord positions and unusual harmonic solutions, it could easily be performed at many Christian church services without upsetting the faithful.
More interesting, however, are the Cinq Rechants. This, the liner notes tell us, “is the last part of Messiaen’s great Tristan trilogy, which was introduced in 1945 with the song cycle Harawi and followed two years later by the monumental Turingalîla Symphony.” This is really strange, “out there” music, although I disagree with annotator Christian Hildebrandt’s claim that this love drama of “tabooed infidelity and most unselfish love can be interpreted as symbols of Messiaen’s own life crisis and love drama.” Writers are forever trying to connect works of art to their creators’ personal problems, never quite realizing that a creator creates to get away from his or her problems, not to mirror or immortalize them in words or music. That being said, there is no question that this is a really inspired work, performed by a cappella chorus of 12 voices. Sometimes, as in “Ma première fois terre,” they are reduced to a whisper; in other places, they shout out their lines. The third piece of the five, “Ma robe d’amour,” sounds the most mystical to me; but once again, perhaps particularly in a “Tristan piece,” I question the use of the word “liturgical” to describe this music. The text, we are told, is a combination of French and a bizarre Sanskrit-like language that Messiaen invented. Regardless, it’s an utterly fascinating piece, full of strange and strong contrasts of mood and style from start to finish. Several parts of the last piece, “Mayorna kalimolimo,” sound like precursors to Meredith Monk’s work.
Marcus Creed and his forces, choral and orchestral, really tear into this music with a passion and commitment that sweep the listener up in their energy. What a tremendous disc this is! And what great, forward sound! Highly recommended. Lynn René Bayley May 13th

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