Bach and Messiaen: Varieties of Religious Experience

United StatesUnited States  Bach, Messiaen: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus, Norman Mackenzie (Director), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Robert Spano (Conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 15.12.2011 (SSM)

Susanna Phillips, Soprano
Sasha Cooke, Mezzo-Soprano
Nicholas Phan, Tenor
Joshua Hopkins, Baritone

Bach:”Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
Messiaen: Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
Bach: Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243

Bach and Messiaen represent two opposite types of composers of religious music. Both shared the belief that they were writing their music for the glory of God alone. In fact, Bach himself ended his compositions with the abbreviation SDG, Soli Deo Gloria.

Bach’s religious music, though, is external, public and communal. It proselytizes and threatens damnation to the unbeliever. It demands that we go through the trials of life “weeping wailing, worrying and fearing” (Cantata No. 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen). It also asks us to “ring out songs, resound strings for the blessed time when God will prepare our souls to be his temple” (Cantata No .190, Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!). His work follows Luther’s call for music to be a way of bringing people together to participate in the liturgy.

On the other hand, Messiaen’s music expresses the composer’s personal religious beliefs and inner struggles. It too resounds with the glory of God, but this God is a private one. Messiaen sings praises not only to God but also to his manifestations: his fascination with bird songs resulted in the seven books of Catalogue d’oiseaux for piano. Messiaen picks up on the tradition of the French sacred music of Charpentier and Couperin. The solitary voices of their Lecons de Ténèbres have a strong emotional connection to Messiaien’s masterpieces for piano, Les Visions de l’Amen written just before and Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus written just after the work performed here.

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C.Debussy, Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine et al.,
K.Nagano / ON de France

The “Brandenberg” Concerto No. 3 served as a prelude to the religious music. It was played by members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s without a conductor and they might have fared better with one. There were both articulation and balancing problems. The basso continuo line lacked clarity, and it was difficult to distinguish the orchestra (ripieno) from the soloists. The two half-note movement, often stretched out with a leading improvisation by the continuo, provided no sense of transition to the last movement. Only in the final movement was there any feeling of coherence.

Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine is a work that one would hardly think could stir up controversy. Yet the work’s uncertain religiosity and Messiaen’s own explanation that was handed out to the audience led to what was called “Le Cas Messiaen.” One critic wrote about this most harmless work as being “of tinsel, false magnificence and pseudo-mysticism…with dirty nails and clammy hands with bloated complexion and unhealthy flab, replete with noxious matter, looking about anxiously like an angel wearing lipstick.” The libretto itself is an odd mixture of Biblical quotations, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Thomas à Kempis and Messiaen’s own religious musings. The instruments added to the orchestra, particularly the ondes martenot, also became a controversial issue for more conservative music critics who questioned whether it was an appropriate instrument for a religious work. Other unusual instruments included celesta and vibraphone.

Robert Spano handled this diverse group with commanding authority. Not quite as musically complex as other orchestral works of Messiaen and still mostly tonal, the music and singing go from almost near-silence to Carmina Burana-like vocal raucousness. The piano part written for his future wife, Yvonne Loriod, dominated the other highlighted instruments. The celesta mostly doubled the piano part, and the ondes martenot’s role was, thankfully, minor. The sounds generated by this instrument’s electronic innards must have sounded other-worldly at the time, but now it seems almost comical, as if played as background music for a Captain Video TV episode or a grade-B 1950’s sci-fi movie.

The concluding work in this concert was Bach’s Magnificat. Spano made no pretensions of performing this work in early music style. But it was a fine performance by any standard. Only the mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, strained as soloist in Et Exultavit, but improved considerably in Esurientes. The final movement, the Gloria Patri, was as all-out rousing and vibrant as any performance I can remember.

Stan Metzger