Pierre Boulez has championed only a few of Olivier Messiaen's many compositions, but we hear three of them on this DG disc with the Cleveland Orchestra (there is a companion Boulez-Cleveland-Messiaen disc of some interest).
"Poemes pour Mi" for soprano and orchestra (1936, orchestrated 1937) is an early piece, written when Messiaen was still drawing strong inspiration from French impressionist composers. It sets nine of Messiaen's own love poems to his first wife, Claire Delbos. These range from sensuous to Romantically bombastic. Messiaen is clearly drawing on the French tradition of the early 20th century, namely the music of Debussy, Ravel and Les Six. Nonetheless, he shows more violence at key points in the work, and there are hints of the exotic rhythms he was to adopt in the years to come. All in all, though, this is a minor work for those who think that Messiaen really hit his stride in the early-mid 1940s.
In the early 1950s, Messiaen wrote a couple of highly avant-garde pieces, one of which ("Modes de valeurs") is often pointed to as the first work of total serialism. But unlike many of his students, Messiaen didn't feel comfortable with utter abstraction. He sought another way forward, and the highly original style he decided upon was music marked by birdsong inflections. "Le reveil des oiseaux" for piano and orchestra (1953) was the first ensemble work in this new vein. The piece is meant to imitate the dawn chorus, and the inspiration rather overtakes the composer's art, as the result is a pretty incoherent jumble. I've always felt that "Le reveil des oiseaux" was merely a sketch for the magisterial "Oiseaux exotiques" of three years later (hear it on a Naive disc). Here Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs on piano.
"Sept Haikai" for piano and orchestra (1962), written after a visit to Japan, continues the birdsong inspiration. The encounter with Japanese culture seems to have had a marked influence on Messiaen, as his mature style's sense of rhythm as a succession of blocks is here tempered by supple rhythms that seem to strain periodicity. The piano part here is played by Joela Jones, long principal keyboard player of the Cleveland Orchestra.
None of these pieces are Messiaen's best, though "Sept Haikai" comes close. Still, fans of the composer will enjoy this disc with its fine performances and sound.