Messiaen: "Chants de Terre et de Ciel."
The records marking the centenary of French modernist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) have been disappointingly thin, being mostly multiple versions of his "Quartet for the End of Time." So, this thoughtfully conceived, beautifully realized recital disc does a great service. Featuring French-Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc, the program highlights the songwriting of the young Messiaen, when he was enraptured with his first, short-lived wife and under the spell of Debussy.
There is an ecstatic quality to the cycles "Trois Melodies" and "Chants de Terre et de Ciel" (Songs of the Earth and Sky), all swooning lyricism and moonlit atmosphere. These are deeply French, high-art songs, crafted like jewels. But they also have an effortless naturalism, especially with a singer like LeBlanc. The soprano, in her mid-40s, has specialized in Baroque repertoire, but she has also explored the folk tunes of her Acadian heritage. Her tone is silvery, clear and floating (with the barest vibrato), her phrasing intimate like she's singing just for you. These qualities are ideal, as Messiaen's songs are about romantic faith and spiritual love.
The piano parts are rich, with Messiaen giving impressionistic harmony a modernist update. The composer's first wife was a violinist, and he wrote several pieces for her, including the ravishingly lyrical "Vocalise" for violin and piano, played lovingly here by Laura Andriani. Also included is the melodious "Theme et Variations" for violin and piano, with Andriani taking it at flowing pace while managing the most poetic close.
The rarity here is "La Mort du Nombre," a dramatic mini-cantata for soprano, tenor, violin and piano by the 21-year-old Messiaen that shows the influence of Wagner's love music through the prism of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande." Lawrence Wiliford may sound a bit callow next to LeBlanc, but they entwine intensely enough, the piece ending with shimmering, love-struck piano.