Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
Messiaen is, of course, one of the most significant French composers of the twentieth century, living from 1908 to 1992 and as many classical buffs will know "significant" is a weasel-word, often used as a synonym for "difficult". A wise reviewer once passed on some useful advice to me and I pass it on to you: Messiaen must be listened to in his own terms; he is like Picasso in knowing the rules of the Old Masters and deciding that he is going to create his own and follow them faithfully. We can hear this in action in the closing work on this disc: "Un Souire" ("A Smile"). This was a commission from the Polish conductor Marek Janowski to compose an orchestral piece "in the spirit of Mozart" and was given its premiere in December 1991. It does not sound anything like Mozart, with slow sections of sonorous chords alternating with chirpy passages based on birdsong. However Messiaen explained that he was paying homage to Mozart's outlook on life: his music always makes us smile so, in Messaien's own words: "I too tried to smile, and I composed 'Un souire'. . . which I hope . . . smiles!" And you, dear reader, will have to decide whether this works. The title track is a collection of poems for Messaien's first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos who he called "Mi", as in Doe-Ray-Mi. "Poemes Pour Mi" is neither romantic nor sentimental but is instead deeply mysterious and personal and reminds this reviewer somewhat of the Biblical Song of Songs. What particularly stands out is the scintillating singing of the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms who brings out every nuance of Messaien's text. The remaining work, "Les Offrandes Oubliees" ("The Forgotten Offerings") is perhaps of most interest to us as it a symphonic meditation on the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and our response to Him through the Eucharist. This was Messaien's first published orchestral work from 1930 and was recognised by contemporary critics as being both original and, as emotional music inspired by a deep Christian faith, something unusual. And that provides our one word review: Unusual. If you like Messiaen this is indispensable and if you are interested enough to give him a try the Naxos super-budget price means you will not waste too much money if you find you do not "get" Messiaen. He is worth the effort though.
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