Anne Schwanewilms / Jun Märkl

Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi; Les offrandes oubliées; Un sourire

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When Messiaen made the orchestral arrangement of his song cycle Poèmes pour Mi in 1937, it was considered unplayable because of its rhythmic complexity. Its difficulty lay in the composer's desire to have it sound like it was being freely improvised, which was not quite so tricky in the version for voice and piano (where he simply eliminated the bar lines), but which required extraordinary coordination to pull off with unanimity in a large orchestra of many dozens of individuals. For modern orchestras weaned on the music of the middle and late twentieth century, though, it holds no particular terrors, and the musicians of Orchestre National de Lyon play it like it was second nature. Jun Märkl leads a beautifully nuanced performance that does in fact have the spontaneity of an unpremeditated ecstatic effusion. The rhythmic fluidity, nuanced dynamics, and supple phrasing of Märkl's reading capture the romantic sensuality and mystical spirituality that are interwoven in the score. Messiaen wrote the solo part for a "grand soprano dramatique" -- one imagines a Gallic Brunnhilde or Isolde -- and Anne Schwanewilms comes close to filling the bill. Her voice is warm and sumptuous throughout her range, she sings with effortless flexibility, she can float radiantly over the orchestra, and she has the security to nail the tricky intervals with aplomb. She just doesn't sound French, though -- her initial consonants are sometimes distractingly explosive -- but if one can overlook this shortcoming, her expansive, lustrous performance is a revelation. The disc also includes Les offrandes oubliées (1930), the composer's first published orchestral work, and Un Sourire (1991), one of his last. They are lovely, luminous pieces that intriguingly illustrate how much Messiaen's artistic vision remained consistent over the course of his long career. There is obvious development and a greatly heightened sophistication of expression, but there could be no doubt that these are the works of the same creative imagination; there probably aren't many composers about whom that could be said. Naxos' sound is clean, warm, and natural. The balance is usually excellent, but Schwanewilms gets swallowed up by the orchestra in the last song of Poèmes pour Mi.

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