Poèmes pour Mi (1937); Réveil des oiseaux (1953); Sept Haïkaï (1962)
Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; Françoise Pollet, soprano on Poèmes; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano on Réveil; Joela Jones, piano on Sept Haïkaï.
I don't hate singers/vocalists, but I'm largely not attracted to them. Why is that?
I guess I've always been more a drawn to the instrumental sounds. When it comes to rock and pop groups, the vocalist is usually the "front man" (or woman, as it may be) but is frequently the least interesting person in the ensemble.
It probably doesn't help that I have a poor ear for lyrics, both appreciating them and frankly understanding them. And of course, everything here is in French.
Poèmes is youthful Messiaen, still working in a post-Romantic style. It's accomplished, perfectly nice, but not something that interests me personally.
Then was move on to Awakening of the Birds, which as far as I can tell is the first all-birdsong composition. The degree to which the composer takes liberties in his transcriptions and recreations of birdsongs is musicological question well beyond the scope of this modest blog. This predates the massive piano cycle Catalogue d'oiseaux, which in itself is not entirely birdsong representations, but birdsongs mixed with original musical statements.
I wonder, how much does it matter? I like the birdsong pieces. It's not possible, no matter how accurate his transcription skills might be, to recreate these sounds from nature in any way directly. It's interpretive. He's acting as composer when he assembles all of these materials.
It's no surprise that birdsongs pop up again in his Seven Haiku (Japanese Sketches). I've mentioned before that the 1960s was the composer's most "modernist" period, a time when he was working hard to not seem old-fashioned. These pieces sound only very vaguely Japanese. I think there's a clear indication that his preferences in percussion: bells, gongs, cymbals, mallets, may be inspired partially in Asian music.
The fourth movement, "Gagaku", is inspired by Japanese imperial court orchestral music. I know a little bit about gagaku and have collected various recordings of it. There's a touch of it here, the strings acting in place of the mouth organs (sho) that fill gagaku with its distinctive cluster-chord haze. But he's definitely not trying to recreate that music.
It sounds like a really tough ensemble piece to play, in addition to his usual piano gymnastics.