Messiaen, the Visionary, Reaches for the Stars

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen: Tzimon Barto (piano), John Ryan (horn), Andrew Barclay, Erika Öhman (percussion), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.11.2013 (MB)

Des Canyons aux étoiles


A strange sight greeted the audience at the Royal Festival Hall. No, not the usual lack of anywhere to sit before the performance, the public spaces having yet again been colonised by whatever the collective noun for massed, less-than-heavenly laptop users might be. (By all means encourage use of the space during the day, but is it that unreasonable to expect some spaces at least to be available for concert-goers at night? One would not be able to enter the Philharmonie, the Musikverein, or for that matter the Royal Opera House without a ticket when a performance was on.) No, not even the sight of the hall creditably full for an hour-and-three-quarters of Messiaen, for the season, The Rest of Noise, whatever one might think of sometimes predictable, even conservative, programming, has nevertheless more or less guaranteed sizeable audiences for twentieth-century music. It was the bust of Beethoven placed upon the stage. Perusal of the programme noted the reinstatement in the Royal Philharmonic Society’s bicentenary of a venerable tradition for the society’s concerts, the bust having been given to the RPS in 1870 by Fanny Linzbauer, ‘in recognition of the Society’s kindness to Beethoven during the last years of his life’. Why strange, then? Apart from the far from unwelcome surprise, the presence of Beethoven on the stage served principally to underline Messiaen’s strangeness or, perhaps better, his dissociation from the dominant æsthetic of modern Western music. Beethovenian development is quite foreign to a world of repetition and stasis. And if ultimately there is goal-orientation in this work, Des Canyons aux étoiles, it is of a very different nature from that of a Beethoven symphony.

Christoph Eschenbach is no mean Beethovenian himself, of course, so it was interesting to hear him in such different repertoire. If there were a few occasions when the knife-edge precision and, just as crucial, time-defying patience of, say, a Boulez was lacking, there was by the same token nothing that was unidiomatic. Eschenbach was blessed by a fine collection of solo musicians: pianist Tzimon Barto, horn player John Ryan, and percussionists, Andrew Barclay and Erika Öhman. And if the London Philharmonic Orchestra was not always as precise or as infallible as a band under Boulez might have been – he conducted the British première in 1975, itself an RPS concert – then again, it would be churlish to complain too much about what remained undeniably a memorable occasion.

This tour of landscapes both American and heavenly – the Tea Party may need reminding of the distinction, but I doubt that many of its members are avid Messiaen listeners – opens with the desert, ‘Le Désert’. Nigel Simeone’s note reminded us that, according to the composer, ‘The Desert represents the emptiness that is needed if the soul is to be receptive to the message of the Holy Spirit.’ There certainly was an element of that necessary stillness, even barrenness, both from the obvious – too obvious? – wind machine and, more thoroughly penetrating to the spiritual heart of the matter, lonely solo orchestral instruments. Yet there was also a sense even here, in the opening call, and in the later solos, of God’s Creation made manifest, immanent, even in its most inhospitable environment. And God seemed to speak, unanswerable, unchallenged, through Ryan’s horn. ‘Les Orioles’ offered a more fully realised vision of joy in Creation: birdsong of course, but also harmonies that would not have been out of place in L’Ascension, Barclay’s contribution to tuned percussion every bit as precise as that of Barto. A harder-edged sonority announced itself at the beginning of ‘Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles’, setting the scene for its portentous apocalyptic quality. Lack of unanimity amongst the orchestra slightly lessened its impact, but that should not be exaggerated. The piano solo, ‘Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin’ (‘The White-browed Robin’) – Messiaen is certainly good for enriching one’s avian vocabulary – was despatched with crystalline clarity, occasionally besmirched by what might have been a little over-pedalling. The final movement of the first part, ‘Cedar Breaks et le Don de Crainte’ was urgent and, yes again, apocalyptical, imbued with a sense of God’s majesty.  There were a few cases in which woodwind rhythms might have been tighter; it was not entirely clear whether that was Eschenbach’s doing. Yet again, there was little truly to detract from the gift of awe. And there was a splendid contribution from muted trumpet.

The second part opens with the celebrated horn solo, ‘Appel interstellaire’. It received a splendid performance from Ryan, echoes and all. Not only was there more tonal variegation than one might reasonably have hoped for; there was, more importantly still, a proper sense of narrative coherence. I could not help be put in mind at one point of the cor anglais solo from Act III of Tristan, as well as more obvious French horn-specific precedents. ‘Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange’ is the largest movement in the work. Again, it sometimes lacked the last word in rhythmical exactitude, but that was certainly not the case with the contributions from the soloists or indeed from the admirable LPO string section. Moreover, there was nothing that detracted or distracted from the sense of divine awe and majesty. Barto really pounded the bass of his instrument, the treble passages proving equal in authority.

‘Les Ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran’ opens the third and final part. It initially offered a post-Debussyan air of hazy mystery, which Messia(e)nic certitude soon broke through. Despite a few loose ends, the music’s hieratic progress mesmerised. Barto’s second solo movement, ‘Le Moqueur Polyglotte’, was impressive: songful and muscular. At the same time, I entertained the doubtless heretical thought that this mockingbird perhaps overstays his welcome. ‘La Grive des bois’ offered another occasion for percussionists, both solo and orchestral, to shine, which they did. ‘Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama’ showed, amongst other things, that the horns had not gone away, their opening calls leaving us in no doubt about that. A wonderful chorus of birdsong followed: a sense imparted of triumph being prepared. And so it came to pass in ‘Zion Park et la Cité Céleste’, a typically Messiaenesque celestial coronation. The birds were far from silenced; rather they were sublimated – assumed? – into a new heaven-scape, itself summoned into being by the divine brass chorale, implacable yet not without tenderness. This final movement thus proved summative in a musical and a theological sense. Its conclusion sent shivers down the spine; as Messiaen put it, ‘the bells ring out, heralding the ultimate joy.’

Mark Berry

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