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Regards sur l'Infini review – glowing, intriguing French chamber music

Erica Jeal
·2 min read

For most chamber music partners, 2020 has been a year of jarring discontinuity, but for a few – those with a spare room, no family commitments and the ability to tolerate the incorrect loading of the dishwasher – there have been silver linings. In Rotterdam in March the pianist Sam Armstrong moved in with his soprano recital partner Katharine Dain for what they thought would be a few weeks of quarantine and rehearsal. Those weeks turned into months, in which they worked daily on a selection of French-language songs written in life-changing times. The result, recorded in August, is an extraordinarily polished and thought-through disc.

At its centre is a glowing performance of Messiaen’s 1937 song cycle Poèmes pour Mi, Dain’s voice crystalline yet powerful when required, Armstrong’s piano effortlessly propulsive. Surrounding this, in pleasing symmetry, are works by four other composers. At the beginning and end are two striking songs by Kaija Saariaho: 2002’s Parfum de l’instant, the piano creating a sense of large-scale, almost tectonic motion, and 1986’s Il pleut, in which Armstrong’s contribution is to pick out a descending chromatic scale that goes from the very top of the keyboard to the very bottom, a hypnotising effect. There are two memorably melodic songs by Dutilleux, from one of which the disc takes its name, and Debussy’s early Proses Lyriques, full of Romantic sweep.

It’s the two songs that frame the Messiaen that are the most intriguing. They are by “Mi” herself: Claire Delbos, Messiaen’s first wife, a violinist and composer silenced when in 1949 she suffered memory loss after an operation; she died of cerebral atrophy in a care home, a decade later. Her song cycle L’âme en bourgeon (The Budding Soul), composed when she was pregnant with their only child, sets words by her poet mother-in-law, written when pregnant with Messiaen. Not a note is wasted in the two dark, concentrated little songs that Dain and Armstrong choose to include. In fact, ideally this disc would include more Delbos – but I’m not sure what I’d sacrifice to make room.

This week’s other pick

Slavonic Reflections (Pentatone) captures the elusive Russian pianist Nelly Akopian-Tamarina live in a Wigmore Hall recital in 2009, and it’s just as riveting as the Brahms disc she released three years ago. The intensity and inward focus she brings to her programme of Chopin mazurkas, Janáček’s In the Mists and short pieces by Medtner and Liadov makes the whole thing spellbinding.