top of page

Fanfare US " Anyone wanting a disc of the Trois petite liturgies should snap up this release"

March 31, 2015

Phillip Scott

Fanfare US (1. review)
MESSIAEN Trois petite liturgies de la Présence divine.1 Cinq Rechants.2 O sacrum convivium!3 • Marcus Creed, cond; 1,3Danish National Concert Choir; 1Danish National Chamber Orchestra; 2Danish National Vocal Ensemble; 1Marianna Shirinyan (pn); 1Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot) • OUR 6.220612 (59:03)
The Trois petite liturgies de la Présence divine, composed 1943-44, is a pivotal work. It marks the first appearance in Messiaen's music of the ondes Martenot and the first time he was to employ tuned percussion and piano to create a gamelan effect. Some of the piano writing looks ahead to the major influence of birdsong; indeed, one of the lines of the relentlessly ecstatic quasi-religious text is "Do not awaken me; it's the time of the bird!" (It loses something in translation.) The work features a choir of female voices, strings and percussion, with prominent solos for the piano and ondes Martenot. The music it most resembles is the Turangalîla Symphony of two years later: the calm first movement suggests the Garden of love's sleep while the disjunctive rhythms of the second liturgie are precursors to the explosive motifs of the symphony's Joy of the blood of the stars. The third movement is the longest and most varied, encompassing the frenetic climaxes and moments of floating stasis that characterize Messiaen's highly personal style.
Messiaen wrote his own text for the work. As David Hurwitz put it, in his review of an earlier recording (Fanfare 15:3), "the words... are either deeply significant or completely silly, and are probably both". That is a discussion for another day but, typically, color imagery permeates the text and is inextricably linked to the composer's musical inspiration. Silly or not, the words are well nigh impossible to catch in performance––which doesn't really matter: the liturgical atmosphere and moments of great lyrical beauty never fail to register.
A brief a cappella setting of the Latin text for communion, O sacrum convivium! is the earliest of Messiaen's choral works, and while recognizable as the composer's work, is comparatively conventional. Chromatic harmonies utilizing 7th and 9th chords recall the choral writing of Delius. To me, they sound not at all "jazzy", as the booklet note would have us believe.
The Cinq Rechants (or Five Refrains, 1948) for twelve solo voices is much quirkier: a set of technically difficult settings of poems by the composer, written in French and an imaginary form of Sanskrit. The Refrains represent the third part of Messiaen's trilogy based loosely and rather generally on the legend of Tristan and Isolde. The song cycle Harawi forms the first part of this trilogy, and the Turangalîla Symphony the second. Messiaen quotes the love chorale from Turangalîla in the third refrain "Ma robe d'amour", and several other rhythmic and thematic figures call to mind the familiar orchestral work. The Danish vocalists meet every challenge, both linguistic and musical, in this spaciously recorded performance. The primary soprano soloist is utterly fearless.
Of the main work, there have been several recordings in the past. Although I no longer have it to hand, Bernstein once recorded the Trois liturgies with New York forces for Columbia. Raymond Tuttle, in Fanfare 28:4, was critical of that recording. (Messiaen does not seem to have been a favorite with Bernstein. Although he conducted the premiere of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, Lennie never returned to that work, nor did he record it. The Trois liturgies represent his entire Messiaen discography.)
The most recent version comes from Myung Whun-Chung and French radio forces, recorded in 2008 by DG. It boasts an incisive pianist in Roger Muraro, and a drier, more analytical acoustic. In both recordings the ondes Martenot's first upward swoops suggest one of the choristers has had a sudden attack of mal de mer. The major difference between the two performances is that Myung Whun-Chung uses a choir of children aged between nine and seventeen, the Maîtrise de Radio France, in place of the stipulated adult female voices. His young choir negotiates the tricky intervals and rhythms with ease, and I prefer the detachment their blanched tone lends to Messiaen's excesses. They sound particularly appropriate in the spoken sections of the third movement, where the rhythmic structure suggests the chant of a children's game. Having said that, Marcus Creed's Danish performance is not outclassed, merely different in scope and intent. The Danish singing is expressive and impressively solid in pitch. The couplings are also exceptionally fine, as indicated above. Anyone wanting a disc of the Trois petite liturgies should snap up this release. Phillip Scott April 1th 2015

bottom of page