Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… is the Biggest Discovery So Far of EIF 2018

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2018 [15] – Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Noè Rodrigo-Gisbert (glockenspiel), Bence Major (xylorimba), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Matthias Pintscher (conductor), Usher Hall, 22.8.2018. (SRT)

Matthias Pintscher © Felix Broede

MessiaenDes canyons aux étoiles…

Des canyons aux étoiles… is definitely a Festival work. At ninety minutes, it’s Messiaen’s longest orchestral work, and while it requires far smaller forces than blockbusters like Turangalîla it’s nowhere near as widely performed or known. So it often takes something of the clout of the Edinburgh International Festival to bring about a performance. Until tonight, I confess, I knew the work only by reputation, but this performance hit me right between the eyeballs and made me immediately rush home to seek out a recording to hear it again.

The piece was commissioned in 1970 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence in 1974, so the composer drew much of his inspiration from the great American landscape; specifically the canyons and deserts of Utah with their red rocks and strange landforms. However, the piece is about much more than that on a metaphysical level. Beginning in the desert, it moves upwards through various planes of thought and feeling (including the brilliantly titled ‘The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran’) to arrive in paradise in the final movement as exemplified in Utah’s Zion Park. As such, the work is designed to take the listener on a journey, and I found myself transported, partly through Messiaen’s music, but also through the monumentality of the effort required to bring it to life.

Hats off to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, first of all, for taking on this kaleidoscopic score and carrying it off with such aplomb. They have a well-deserved reputation in contemporary music, but I’ve never heard them tackle something as ambitious and sprawling as this, let alone to do it so well. Lots of things stand out, such as the ethereal evocation of the desert in the opening movement or the screeching violin harmonics and organ-like unisons that made up the multi-coloured horror film of Cedar Breaks. The music often works through struggling towards a chord that it only sometimes manages, and that glowing E major that occurred at the end of the Bryce Canyon movement was a blazing revelation, much more so than the (somewhat anti-climactic) final pages.

It was entirely fitting that one of their own should be the horn soloist, and SCO principal Alec Frank-Gemmill gave a powerhouse performance in, especially, the solo sixth movement, ‘Interstellar call’, where, over the course of five minutes, he got his horn to make sounds that I didn’t know were possible. Even more impressive, however, was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who achieved nothing short of heroism in his two solo movements, especially ‘The wood thrush’, where I was left repeatedly wondering how on earth such sounds could be legibly notated on the score.

Matthias Pintscher had a crystal-clear vision for the piece; not only holding it all together but allowing it to breathe cleanly and clearly, controlling the big moments like the celestial atmosphere of ‘Aldebaran’ and building a sense of narrative into the many climaxes. The instrumentalists and sparkling percussionists came together to make a brilliantly shimmering texture that I found rather hypnotic, and hats off to the wind machine operator, who carried on playing even when the handle fell off!

The crowd was pretty respectable too; smaller than for a Beethoven concert, naturally, but still pretty sizeable, and they sat rapt with engagement all the way through. Rightly so. This was a triumph and, for me, my biggest discovery of the 2018 Festival so far.

Simon Thompson

The 2018 Edinburgh International Festival runs in venues across the city until Monday 27th August. For full details click here.

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