French composer Guillaume Connesson, born in 1970, is a genuine eclectic with a strong populist streak. His music is recognizably French -- it's easy to detect its lineage from Debussy through Ravel, Poulenc, and Messiaen, even to the influence of spectralists like Murail. There's a directness of emotional expression and a French sense of transparency, even when the music is highly complex. Connesson's lack of inhibition in using both simplicity and gestures that have a cinematic grandeur give his music an immediate appeal. In spite of its complexity, it's easy to imagine even audiences who aren't crazy about "modern music" enjoying his colorful and expressive pieces. "Athanor," a large-scale oratorio, is a roiling, turbulent creation myth that describes an alchemist fashioning the world in his furnace. The choral writing is harmonically dense, but not densely contrapuntal, and has a monumentality that perfectly suits the subject. The text setting of the solos for soprano and baritone has a Debussian simplicity and lyricism. "Supernova," for orchestra, has a similarly cosmic scope; its brilliantly colorful orchestration and surging momentum make it a hugely effective depiction of one of the biggest events in the universe.
Connesson receives top-notch performances from Orchestre National de France and Choeur de Radio France, with Jonathan Darlington directing "Athanor" and Muhai Tang directing "Supernova." Virginie Pesch and Nigel Smith sing radiantly, with fresh, pure tone, and strong feeling for "Athanor"'s lyrical impulse. The recordings were made at live performances, so there is some audience noise, but otherwise, the sound is excellent, with fine balance.