St.Andrew’s concert – Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi

Felicity Smith (mezzo-soprano)

Michael Stewart (piano)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The performers were brave to tackle a difficult and unusual work such as this cycle of nine songs, and perhaps it was not only the recent bad weather that deterred some from attending the lunch-time concert.

However, it proved to be an interesting and worthwhile recital.

Messiaen’s songs were written in 1936 for his wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, whose nickname was Mi.  He wrote the words himself, with Biblical influences, and also those of the surrealist poets.  The songs celebrate the sacrament of marriage, and as in the Bible itself, the service of Holy Communion and the metaphysical poets, use marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and his church.  They are very varied in style, with the first and last drawing on plainchant, while others use impressionist styles; nevertheless, most of the composer’s music is very much uniquely the composer’s own.

The performers both gave full rein to the intensity and contrasting subtlety in the writing.  The words were absolutely clear, as befits a graduate in French, as Felicity Smith is.

The use of the printed score by the singer was quite understandable, given the complexity and variety in both words and music which would make them difficult to memorise, but it did create a barrier to communication with the audience.

The accompaniments were beautifully played by Michael Stewart; technically difficult, they were full of exquisite impressionistic phrases and images.  He was totally ‘in synch’ with and supportive of the singer.

The titles of the songs convey their content quite well: their translations are Thanksgiving; Landscape; The house; Terror; The bride; Your voice; The two warriors; The necklace (Le Collier!); A prayer granted.  In the fourth song, Terror, the performers certainly conveyed the emotion strongly.

Your voice was a quite lovely song, while The two warriors contained very evocative writing. The necklace featured a sublime ending.

Sometimes in the first half (the first four songs) the singer’s sound was rather breathy, and not only between phrases.  This was less so in the second half.  Her voice has a very pleasing quality, and the right kind of tone for French song.

The performers are both to be congratulated on attempting and bringing off this difficult cycle; it was a most accomplished performance, and illuminating to anyone who, like me, was unfamiliar with the songs.

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