Murray Schafer is one of Canada's foremost contemporary composers, and the liner notes to the disc Murray Schafer: Letters from Mignon state he is "Canada's preeminent composer," a startling statement for a nation whose Music Centre is notorious for not favoring one composer over another. Schafer, though, has more than earned such preeminence through his hard work and out-of-the-box approach to music-making, informed in part through his early contact with Marshall McLuhan. Starting in a neo-classical vein in the early '50s, Schafer has moved through neo-romanticism, serialism, the avant-garde, social activism, "acoustic ecology" (which he pioneered in the 1970s -- Schafer is widely credited for coining the word "soundscape"), the massive music drama Patria that he began in the 1980s that rivals Stockhausen's Licht in size, and so on. To judge from Letters from Mignon, the title work on this disc written for mezzo-soprano Eleanor James in 1987, Schafer found it appropriate to reach into his neo-romantic vein to set "letters" from the character Mignon from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister. The song cycle Minnelieder, written in Vienna in 1956, is already in that style, but in the version sung by James, Schafer transformed the original woodwind quintet accompaniment into a full orchestration, and added a song, in 1987. Quite different from the other two is Thunder: Perfect Mind (2003): setting this for voice and orchestra was a great idea, as "Thunder: Perfect Mind" is the most inherently musical text to be found in the Gnostic Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945. For this, Schafer stretches out more than in the other pieces, reaching into the vocabulary of the avant-garde for drama and effects, but keeping in mind the essential lyricism of the text and the forward thrust of its argument. Thunder: Perfect Mind is very skillfully done and is certainly an attractive vehicle for James, who is Schafer's significant other in life in addition to serving as his muse.
As these works were written with James' voice in mind, it is difficult to be complimentary without sounding facetious; of course she's going to sound great -- why wouldn't she? However, if the music were second rate, then it wouldn't be much of an advantage, would it? The ATMA Classique recording could stand to be a little louder in general, and there is a bit of an impasse between the level of the voice and that of the orchestra, which is often very faint. Partly this is Schafer's own preference for very still orchestral textures, particularly when James is center stage in a given passage, but there is room for an increased presence of the instrumental complement. Schafer's output is too large and varied to say that this, or any other single disc of his music, would serve as a "way in" to his unique soundworld. However, to those with relatively conservative tastes and little foreknowledge of Schafer and his work, ATMA Classique's Murray Schafer: Letters from Mignon is one of the most appealing options of the many that are out there.