MESSIAEN Poèmes pour Mi. Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
It’s becoming clear that Ludovic Morlot likes to do things his own way. His recent disc of Ives’s New England Holidays (9/17) was startling for its utter lack of sentimentality. I’ve certainly never heard anything like it. And, here, with this pair of early masterpieces by Messiaen, Morlot again defies tradition – and, some might say, the composer’s intentions as well.
Poèmes pour Mi is a strange amalgam of love song and religious meditation. Messiaen composed this cycle of nine songs in 1936‑37 as a gift for his wife (whom he affectionately called ‘Mi’), specifying that it be sung by a grand soprano dramatique. Jane Archibald has Donna Anna in her repertoire, although in style and tone she’s clearly more of an ingénue. Yet this is just right for Morlot’s unusually sleek and lithe interpretation. Archibald soars rapturously in songs like ‘L’épouse’ and ‘Ta voix’, caressing the languorous phrases with exquisite tenderness. ‘Épouvante’ is more playful than perturbed, perhaps, but this fits with the joyful character of the performance as a whole. Indeed, Morlot gives the impression that the entire cycle is moving inexorably towards the climax of the final song (beginning with the line ‘Carillonne, mon coeur!’), which is so euphoric it practically vibrates.
Morlot takes a much bolder risk in the Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (1944), substituting a boys’ choir for the women’s voices. His rationale appears reasonable: Messiaen wanted pure, angelic voices. But, in fact, this change alters the very nature of the work by removing even the barest hint of sensuality from music that is often wonderfully sensuous. Still, there are intriguing results to be savoured. I like the feral quality of the boys in the second movement, particularly when Morlot makes the most of the orchestral texture. Listen at 2'43", where the voices are accompanied by the swooping ondes martenot and growling double basses. Indeed, the boys sing beautifully throughout, despite a few minor lapses in rhythmic attentiveness. In both works, the Seattle Symphony show themselves to be thriving under Morlot’s scrupulous direction.