MESSIAEN: 3 Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine; O sacrum convivium; Cinq rechants – Marianna Shirinyan, p./ Thomas Bloch, Ondes Martenot/ Danish Nat. Vocal Ens./ Danish Nat. Concert Ch./ Danish Nat. Ch. Orch./ Marcus Creed – OUR Recordings multichannel SACD 6.220612, 59:03 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Marcus Creed, since becoming the director of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble in 2011, has committed to presentations and recordings of important modern composers. Messiaen received the call out of the gate and the result is this very fine vocal collaboration. The strengths of the choruses and orchestra are well-known to anyone who has listened to either genre that enjoys the participation of these superb groups; the choruses are technically immaculate, sonorous, and a little cool in sound, something that might make you think Messiaen not suited to them, but this is a mistake. They are as fine as you could wish, and the composer holds up, indeed thrives, in this Nordic atmosphere.

Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence is a work that has attained some notoriety, a glorious female chorus surrounded by a host of glowing percussion and strings. Though the work was a success when first given (it was a wartime effort), critical expansion could not come to terms with the textual elements being set in so unconventional a manner, especially religious texts. Messiaen however, saw in its religious expression a compendium of sounds and “colors” so vividly portrayed here, and the three movements, “God’s presence in us…”, “God’s presence within himself…”, and “God’s presence in all things…” are each radiantly expressed in music of joy and hints of the unknowable amidst the known.

O sacrum convivium! is a time-honored liturgical text that inspired generations of composers going back hundreds of years. It is understandable why a young Messiaen would be attracted to it, and his calm and reassuring setting has taken its place among the classic versions, and remains one of his most popular pieces.

Five Refrains doesn’t have the popularity of Convivium but it does occupy a central spot in Messiaen’s output. In 1945 the composer introduced his great Tristan trilogy, begun with the song cycle Harawi and followed with the monumental Turangalila Symphony. The composer considered this a love-fest, and the last part a love-song, yet those expecting to hear I will always love you might come away a little perplexed, as the music is a blending of uncharacteristic sounds and rhythm, while the text mixes French and Sanskrit in a mélange of highly contrasting segments that challenge the listener while overwhelming with the sheer sonic beauty of it all.

Messiaen is an acquired taste, but I have known few people who, upon really digging into the composer, come away unrewarded. The hi-res surround sound is excellent.

—Steven Ritter