October 30, 2008


Messiaen: Chants de terre et de ciel; Troi mélodies; La mort du nombre; Vocalise; Thème et variations pour violon et piano. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Laura Andriani, violin; Robert Kortgaard, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra; Danses populaires roumaines. Les Violons du Roy conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

     Classical performers can find real value in specialization, becoming adept at the intricacies of a particular style or period of music and therefore becoming connected with that music and its composers in the minds of audience members – and concert promoters. But some musicians come to find the intense focus stifling after a time, and long to branch out, which they do with varying degrees of success. When they explore widened horizons successfully, they can bring a new perspective to the works outside their previous areas of involvement – as occurs in both these new CDs featuring performers who have moved from Baroque specialties into the 20th century.

     Suzie LeBlanc’s experience with Baroque and other early music stands her in good stead in a CD of early works by Olivier Messiaen. This is simpler music, happier in a more surface-level way, than Messiaen’s later works would be, and LeBlanc’s clarity of tone and forthrightness of expression serve it well. Thème et variations pour violon et piano, the only non-vocal work on this CD, was composed by Messiaen for his wife, violinist/composer Claire Delbos, in the year they were married: 1930. Chants de terre et de ciel (1938) was inspired by Delbos as well, and it shows a certain charm as well as emotional naïveté coupled with religious faith, beginning with “Bail avec Mi” (“”Mi” being the composer’s affectionate name for his wife) and ending with “Résurrection.” Laura Andriani and Robert Kortgaard play the violin-and-piano work with warmth and affection, and LeBlanc handles the songs the same way, expressing their emotionality without overwhelming their essentially simple sentiments. The other works here are from the same period, before World War II and Messiaen’s capture at Verdun in 1940: Troi melodies dates to 1930 (it was written to honor the composer’s mother, poet Cécile Sauvage); Vocalise is from 1935; and the very interesting La mort du nombre dates to 1930. The title of this work translates as “The Death of Numbers,” and it is a cantata for soprano, tenor, violin and piano – the only Messiaen work before the opera Saint-François d’Assise (1975-1983) that he wrote for a solo male voice. Although this piece lacks the depth and intensity of later Messiaen, it partakes of some of the same underlying philosophy, and the interplay of voices is well handled and well balanced against the two instruments. LaBlanc’s Baroque experience places her in particularly good form here, since this Messiaen work has some of the flavor – in vocal and instrumental use, if not in structure or harmony – of a small-ensemble Baroque-era piece.

     Their previous Baroque and Classical specialization also effectively underlies the approach of Jean-Marie Zeitouni and Les Violons du Roy to Bartók. This ensemble made its reputation playing music written before 1800, but moved outside that time period with a well-received CD devoted to the music of Ástor Piazzolla. Now comes a mixture of familiar and less-known Bartók, played with the sort of attention to detail for which this group is known – and the sort of respect for inner voices and contrapuntal lines that musicians familiar with the Baroque bring. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is played with vigor and enthusiasm, perhaps without the intense angularity of some performances but all in all very effectively. The Divertimento for String Orchestra gets a pleasant, well-paced reading in which all the string sections participate as equals, lending the performance a satisfying chamber-music feeling. And the Danses populaires roumaines, in an orchestration by Zeitouni himself, proceed with a great deal of gusto, ending with a Polka and Marunţel that race to an exciting finish, giving the players a workout that they seem to relish. The subtleties of Bartók are quite different from those of Bach, but Zeitouni and Les Violons du Roy are doing a good job of showing that they are equal to both.

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