Divine Debussy and Messiaen

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Photograph by Jasper Grijpink

Regards Sur L’Infini was recorded by soprano, Katharine Dain, and pianist, Sam Armstrong, during the first lockdown of this year and is a remarkable tribute to Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen. In many respects this musical project is a quite a feat for Dain. Both Debussy’s and Messiaen’s vocal work is demanding of singers; for sopranos, the notes are stratospherically high and the musical landscape adventurous, one which requires great vocal dexterity. Dain’s operatic training prepared her well for these challenges.

Debussy’s Proses Lyriques (1892-3) is an early, highly personal song collection of Debussy’s and it was the one and only time he wrote the libretto for his music. Produced before Suite Bergamasque and opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the songs already bear the hallmarks of his impressionistic style, made up of exotic melodies, exploratory apeggios, chords and special pianistic effects all of which Sam Armstrong carries off seamlessly.

De Fleurs/Flowers, is the most dramatic of Debussy’s songs. He wrote the prose under the influence of his symbolist friend, the poet Paul Verlaine, following a disappointment in love. Flowers fester in ‘sorrow’s hothouse’, evil tendrils strangle the  lover’s heart. Dain’s beautifully modulated lower notes rise and swell in waves and spill over into an infinite ocean of regret. Very Wagneresque and quite gorgeous. Other songs such as De Soir/Evening and De Grève/Seashore are vibrant tableaux of French city life and nature. I loved the optimistic, very modern-sounding final piano bars of De Grève/Sea shore.

Messiaen was a great admirer of Debussy throughout his life but also highly original in his own right. In December 2019 I was lucky enough to see pianist, Ian Pace, perform Messiaen’s remarkable oeuvre, Vingt Regards Sur l’Enfant Jésus, at the City of London performance space. I was bowled over by the two-hour, twenty-piece suite for solo piano, dedicated to the infant Jesus and though I am not a church goer I was converted to Messiaen forever more. 

I was intrigued by the idea of vocals with Messiaen and a little concerned that they would detract from the music, which has a vocabulary of its own. But as with Debussy, the libretto for Poèmes pour Mi is written by Messiaen himself and this is a good thing, as it reveals Messiaen’s passion, not only for his wife, Claire Debos, but for his God (He was a fervent Catholic). With Messiaen, human love and Divine love are inextricably bound. Far from being pretentious, the songs are tender, imaginative, artistic, complex and true. 

With Action de Grâces/Giving of Thanks, I was transported back to that original piano performance of Vingt Regards. Written around the time of the liberation of France, in 1944, Vingt Regards was produced years after Poèmes for Mi (1937). Thus, what we are listening to on this recording, is a foretaste of Messiaen’s celebrated piano work. What really makes Action de Grâces and other Messiaen songs exceptional, is not only their originality and beauty, but Dain’s vocal interpretation. I can only liken her to a high priestess in Action de Grâces, where her soprano line soars over the bell-like sounds produced from Armstrong’s piano keys. Her Alleluia, repeated over and over at the end of the work, is rapturous and mesmeric. Listening to it, I felt I had gone to heaven and back!

The album includes other moving compositions by Claire Delbos, Henri Dutilleux and the contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) which tie-in neatly with the Debussy- Messiaen ethos and musical style. I thought it brave however, and at first, disorientating, to commence the album with Saariaho’s haunting Quatre Instants, but it works!

This is a fine, cohesive work of art. A feast for Debussy – Messiaen enthusiasts and a great introduction to a soprano with an extraordinary voice.

KH

Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong’s new disc of French songs –  Regards sur l’Infini  – is out on 27th November on 7 Mountain Records: https://lnk.to/KatharineDainRegardsSurLInfini.

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