Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi; Chants de Terre et de Ciel album review – beguiling, soft-edged intimacy

<span>Silvery sound … Barbara Hannigan.</span><span>Photograph: © Festival Messiaen/Bruno Moussier</span>
Silvery sound … Barbara Hannigan.Photograph: © Festival Messiaen/Bruno Moussier

Olivier Messiaen wrote just three large-scale works for voice and piano. The most substantial, Harawi, composed in 1945 as the first part of a trilogy of pieces built around the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, was the last of them, while the two cycles that Barbara Hannigan and Bertrand Chamayou have recorded are early works: Poèmes pour Mi was completed in 1937 while the less well known Chants de Terre et de Ciel followed the next year. Both have texts written by the composer himself, characteristically mixing religious imagery with personal references: the Poèmes were dedicated to Messiaen’s first wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos, while Chants celebrated the birth of the couple’s son Pascal.

Hannigan’s silvery, flexible sound may lack the sheer heft of the “dramatic soprano” that Messiaen specifies for both cycles, but the way in which she uses her voice and her superb projection of the French texts are more than adequate compensation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a weightier voice bringing such beguiling, soft-edged intimacy to parts of each cycle as she does. Alongside her, Chamayou finds a rainbow of colours in Messiaen’s piano writing, and as a bonus they add the rarely heard La Mort du Nombre, a 10-minute cantata for soprano, tenor (Charles Sy), violin (Vilde Frang) and piano that Messiaen wrote in 1930. The text, again by the composer himself, depicts two souls expressing their sadness at being separated, the tenor urgent, anguished, the soprano patient and reassuring – the mingling of sexual desire and religious fervour that would be such a big part of Messiaen’s music for the next two decades.

Stream it on Apple Music (above) or on Spotify