Ohana: Messe; Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías; Cantigas; Signes

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WORKS: Messe; Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías; Cantigas; Signes
PERFORMER: Mady Mesplé, Hanna Schaer (soprano), Jacqueline Danjou, Isabel Garcisanz (mezzo-soprano), Michel Jarry (baritone); various choirs, orchestras & conductors
CATALOGUE NO: 2564-61321-2
What do you call someone born in Casablanca to Spanish-Gibraltarian parents, who studied composition in Rome but served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War II? In Maurice Ohana’s case, the answer is: a French composer, but one who was always a difficult figure to pin down. Ohana’s work actively resists classification, striving to create an organic continuum from folk music to the post-war avant-garde vocabulary via a bewildering range of reference and inspiration. If this timely anthology of Erato recordings from the 1960s to the late 1980s doesn’t make assessment of such a multi-faceted composer any easier, it gives some idea of his dazzlingly kaleidoscopic invention and presents some undeniably powerful works in extremely good performances. Interpretatively speaking, these are challenging scores. It was well worth preserving Mady Mesplé’s electric embodiment of the protagonist in the chamber opera Syllabaire pour Phèdre, which requires her to cover a huge tessitura and a daunting array of vocal styles. The core of Ohana’s output centres on the human voice, and similar feats of virtuosity and identification are required of the baritone Michel Jarry – darkly, passionately authoritative in Ohana’s huge, comparatively early Lorca cantata Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías – and the mezzo Isabel Garcisanz, soloist in the stunning vocal cycle Cantigas, a piece that combines Ohana’s love of Spain with his evocations of medieval music, and one that feels likely to endure. The solo vocalists of the ORTF choir rise superbly to the challenges of Cris for 12 solo voices, a work that bears comparison with Messiaen’s Cinq rechants. Among the instrumental and orchestral pieces, Alain Meunier is an eloquent, urgent protagonist in the much later cello concerto Anneau du Tamarit, itself in memory of Lorca, where Ohana demands a wide range of playing techniques, but never mislays the lyrical ardour which underlies this whole work. In the harpsichord works – both solo pieces and the concerto-like Chiffres – the precision and incisiveness of Elisabeth Chojnacka’s playing gives edge and point to music which in other hands might sound merely rhapsodic. Calum MacDonald