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Phillip Scott
Fanfare, November 2010

German soprano Anne Schwanewilms gives a warm and loving rendition of Messiaen’s tricky orchestral song cycle Poèmes pour Mi; this disc is the most impressive Messiaen release I have heard for some time.

William R. Braun
Opera News, April 2010

Singers who have voices suited to the Messiaen orchestral song cycle Poèmes pour Mi are generally not much interested in singing it. Anne Schwanewilms, a Wagner–Strauss soprano of Sieglinde– Chrysothemis weight, is a happy exception. Messiaen’s demands on the interpreter are so diverse and so specific that few sopranos are at home in all nine songs…Schwanewilms, with a darkish but penetrating tone, encompasses them all. She has power below, clarity on high and incisive rhythm, but her timbre is always attractive. She is ideal. Moreover, conductor Jun Märkl and the sound engineers have done careful work with the orchestral balances, honoring the dynamics that Messiaen wrote, which were as detailed as anything in Western music until Boulez’s own music came along. This, too, is ideal.

Schwanewilms responds to the orchestral colors behind her. For the sixth song, “Ta voix,” she finds a touch of Eastern mysticism. But she can also ride over the enormous ensemble when necessary, as in “Les deux guerriers.” When the meter changes every bar in a song, she still gives us phrasing, not a math problem. If she has a long melisma, as in “Action de grâces,” or repeated cries of the single syllable “ha” in “Épouvante,” she still finds character in the music. “L’Épouse” has one of the slowest metronome marks in music, but she maintains it without getting droopy. (Here Märkl finds a sinuous, wandering line in the orchestra without ever stalling.) Incredibly, the song is supposed to get even slower for the final phrase, and, incredibly, the soprano complies. The Lyon players are real musicians; even the bass drum is played as a musical instrument. Märkl is the rare conductor who understands that pizzicato is not a single type of sound. (Messiaen, unusually, even writes pizzicato for muted strings.) He finds many kinds of expression in it. The oboe-playing is especially lovely.

The disc offers Un sourire, a rarity on records as well as a good introduction to the composer’s world. It’s a charming tribute by Messiaen to Mozart. There’s also the more familiar Les offrandes oubliées. You really should be listening to all of this right now…With Messiaen’s vocal music under-represented on disc, the company’s Poèmes pour Mi is a major addition to the catalogue.

Christopher Dingle
BBC Music Magazine, December 2009

This is a delicious programme…Schwanewilms has a lovely voice, yet also has the requisite power when needed…Jun Märkl and his Lyon forces provide sterling support.

Gapplegate Music Review, November 2009

Olivier Messiaen was an extraordinary composer by any standard. His was an exceptional talent; his music combined an extra-sensory sensitivity to the orchestrated potential of the music in his head with a harmonically and rhythmically unique stance that make his music immediately identifiable as coming from his pen and no other.

His music evolved over the many years of his career. There are the first works, which established his reputation and found him developing his musical vocabulary in a number of different directions simultaneously, from the highly contrasting modern mystical rhapsody meets music hall meets world music a la Messiaen of his Turangalila Symphony to the probing mysticism of Poèmes pour Mi. The second period corresponds to his intense interest in bird song and its transformation into brilliantly orchestrated, sublime stutters of sound. Then there is the final period, where he simply reaches an almost other worldly mastery of mystical utterance and achieves a gloriously terminal synthesis of stylistic traits with a complete command over the forces at hand. His orchestrations were always superb. In the end they have an almost uncanny presence.

Each period is totally worthwhile in its own right. With that in mind we turn to the latest Naxos release in their Messiaen series, Jun Märkl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon in a recording of the aforementioned Poèmes pour Mi as well as Messiaen’s first published orchestral work Les offrandes oubliées and a lesser known, rather brief later work, Unsourire.

Poèmes pour Mi has been recorded numerous times and there are many versions still in print. I am not familiar with some, but the Boulez/Cleveland version and the Messiaen-conducted version are both definitive. On the other hand Märkl’s version is quite worthy. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms has an almost operatic intensity to her interpretation that puts this recording towards the top of the pile for me. The orchestral balance is very good and Märkl brings out the mystical transparency of the score quite well. His Les offrandes oubliees revels empathetically in the alternatingly quiet rapture and turbulent outbursts of the score. Unsourire has meditative moments and some of that extraordinary blinding light of punctuated percussiveness typical of the late period.

In short these may not be the most definitive recordings out there, but they are close and offer prime Messiaen masterworks of the earlier period. The addition of UnSourire and the Naxos price tag makes this volume especially attractive.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, November 2009

Poèmes pour Mi was written in 1936 as a cycle of love songs to his then wife Claire Delbos, affectionately called “Mi”. These songs have much more than just a “love” connotation however, venturing, as the biblical Song of Songs does, into love of the Divine as well. This is the orchestral version, orchestrated the same year it was composed though it had to wait until 1949 to get a hearing. The most popular current recording is that of Pierre Boulez on DGG (which I have not heard). Surely the voice of Anne Schwanewilms is a match for that one, a gorgeously balanced instrument that brings the full range of Strauss-like opulence to these equally deserving songs.

The Forgotten Offerings is the composer’s first published work that deals in three movements with Christ on the cross, a testimony of man’s plunge into sin, and the redemption found in the Eucharist. It is actually quite similar in temperament to his 1991 piece A Smile, written for the Mozart bicentenary year. Myung-Whun Chung offers both of these pieces in a DGG disc that has slightly better sound, but overall I cannot complain about these performances, and the price can’t be beat. A fine introduction to Messiaen.

Stephen Eddins, November 2009

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…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.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2009

I hope the Lyon orchestra are about to fill the gaps in Naxos’s Messiaen catalogue, for this new release is as good as any I have yet encountered. It starts with the advantage of Anne Schwanewilms, one of the most beautiful soprano voices of her generation, her tonal quality ideal for music that has its roots in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Written as poems for his wife, her pen name being Mi, they are not songs of love, but of mystery, spirituality, and at times of darkness, the violence of the fourth song, Epouvante, being a traumatised vision of the pain of finding memories lost. Originally scored for voice and piano, the orchestral version took some years to find favour, but in hindsight it was one of the composer’s finest scores. Les offrandes oubilées, was his earliest published orchestral work and established his intent to spend much of his life composing sacred music. In three highly contrasting sections, a depiction of man’s descent into sin shaping the central part. It is the disc’s final track, Un sourire, that is the most strange creation. Commissioned as to be composed ‘in the spirit of Mozart’, Messiaen produced a score that was intended as a comment on Mozart’s desire to make people smile. Whether Messiaen achieved his objective will be in the mind of the listener. As with the accompaniment to the song cycle, the orchestral playing and the conducting of Jun Märkl cannot be faulted, while Tim Handley’s engineering is admirable. My disc of the month.

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