It must have taken all of Renee Fleming's clout to persuade a major label to record French orchestral songs, doubly so when two of the composers, Messiaen and Dutilleux, are modern. One expects that fleming's opera fans will stay away in droves. But whatever popularity this CD gains, it's among her very best, and at age 53 she enjoys the good vocal fortune, as did de los Angeles, of sounding young and seductive. In fact, Fleming's account of Ravel's often-recorded Sheherazade sounds at moments uncannily like de los Angeles - both a trembling and almost breathless, girlish and voluptuous at the same time. Fleming seems fully at home in French (although the printed claim that she is a Francophone belies the fact that she was born in Indiana and went to college in New York).
The Messiaen song cycle, Poemes pour Mi (Mi being the nickname of his first wife), dates form the Thirites, which means that it is written in a post-Debussy idiom before Messiaen became Messiaen. That doesn't imply conservatism. The agitated "Epouvante" ("Terror") portrays a kind of nauseous fear using a slippery, exotic sound palette that the mature Messiaen would famously extend even further. But most of the nine poems celebrate a sense of loving calm with religious overtones. Melody is not the cycle's strong point - it takes off from the sing-song style of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, often repeating the same note or remaining within a narrow band. Amazingly, Fleming performed the Messiaen as part of a PBS broadcast from Lincoln Center; such events are generally restricted to standard fare. Alan Gilbert conducted then and repeats here with the Orchestre Philharmonique of French Radio (one of the country's most forward-looking ensembles under their music director Myung-Whun Chung). Gilbert is quite impressive in both the Messiae and Ravel; one could hardly ask for more energy and inner life in such colorful writing - the orchestra plays an unusually prominent part, which for me adds far more interest in the Messiaen than the composer's own quasi-Symboliste texts.
Fleming scored a coup getting the nonagenarian Henri Dutilleux (he was born in 1916) to write a song cycle for her; she toured with Le temps l'horloge (Time the Clock) in 2009, beginning in Japan with Seiji Ozawa - a champion of Dutilleux's in Boston - and he repeats his role with a second French ensemble, the Orchestre national de France. Chary with his output, Dutilleux has always held a high reputation among connoisseurs for his craftsmanship and precise authority. Fleming begins with a work from the Fifties, Two Sonnets of Jean Cocteau, that is quite arresting. cocteau was a lifelong enfant terrible, and one always wonders if his arch verse is to be taken seriously (in the first sonnet, about arriving at a bare, haunted castle "the walls drip with Sphinx's milk"). But Dutilleux uses the poem to pain a psychologically lurid state a la Edgar Allen Poe; the second poem, about a dream of losing a lover in a dim woods, gives the composer a chance to pain empty sorrow.
By the time we move to 2009, the idiom remains much the same, displaying Dutilleux's remarkable ability to keep composing at full strength in his nineties (a rare accomplishment shared by Elliott Carter beyond the centenary mark). The orchestration is more spare; there are exotic touches here and there, such as the juxtaposition of harpsichord and Accordion, and the poets are various, including Baudelaire and the Surrealist Robert Desnos, who was with Dutilleux in the French Resistance (the composer was awarded the Croix de Guerre) and who died tragically in a German concentration camp, the notorious Terezin. Like Messiaen, Dutilleux suggests melody while entwining the vocal line in a rich mosaic of glittering orchestral textures. The vocal range in both cycles poses a serious challenge to the superstar soprano, and she provides exciting leaps, often with strange intervals and high-flying climaxes. There is no doubt that the Dutilleux is not an easy listen, but the live audience seems wildly appreciative.