United Kingdom BBC PROM 13 – Messiaen, Des canyons aux étoiles: Martin Owen (horn), Nicolas Hodges (piano), David Hockings (xylorimba), Alex Neal (glockenspiel), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London. 28.7.2019. (CSa)
Responding to a commission in 1971 to commemorate the bicentenary of the United States Declaration of Independence, Olivier Messiaen travelled to Utah, where he discovered the magnificence of Bryce Canyon. Inspired by its landscapes, skyscapes and bird life, his response was Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars). It is a spiritual celebration of the natural world – as much an expression of his deeply held Catholic faith as it is a musical response to the innocence, beauty and power of nature.
The work’s forceful impact defies the actual size of the ensemble – a fact which serves as a metaphor for man’s place in the universe. The solo instruments – a piano (played by the virtuosic Nicolas Hodges), a sparkling xylorimba and glockenspiel (respectively provided by the peerless David Hockings and Alex Neal), and a soulful horn (Martin Owen) – were supported by forty musicians drawn from the talented ranks of the BBC SO under the supple, expressive hands of their Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo. Positively benefitting from the canyon-like acoustical challenges of the Royal Albert Hall, they delivered a tightly cohesive, rainbow coloured account of Messiaen’s paean to the glory of God in all his creation.
A lonely horn introduction and a howling wind machine in Part I’s first movement eerily evoked the Canyon’s dry sand wilderness, while flutter tongued flutes and miniature piano cadenzas in the second movement summoned the call of brightly feathered Orioles. In the third movement, entitled Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles (What was written in the stars), three shrill chords herald the swirling of the earth’s shifting sands. This is achieved by the use of a ‘geophone’, a hand rotated flat drum with thousands of small lead pellets, especially invented by the composer. Meanwhile, in the finale to Part I, glockenspiel, bells, tremulous strings and tweeting trumpet mouthpieces brilliantly conjured the awe-inspiring natural amphitheatre of Cedar Breaks and its teeming, chirruping bird life.
In Appel interstellaire (Interstellar Call), which opens Part II, Owen’s formidable horn playing was followed by a brilliantly defined Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange (Bryce Canyon and the Red-Orange Rocks). Under Oramo’s expert direction, we were guided clearly through an alien star-lit sound world of strange geological formations, colours and bird song.
A particular highlight was the celestial and redemptive Part III – Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran (The Resurrected and the Song of Aldebaran) – in which the shifting harmonies of Kathleen Stevenson’s piccolo and David Hockings’s xylorimba provided momentary respite from the harshness of the canyon. Nicolas Hodges’s pianistic Le moqueur polyglotte (The Mockingbird) was executed in spectacular fashion, while the penultimate movement Omao, leiothrix, elepaio, shama, a chorus of birdsong, was simply thrilling.
It is sobering to learn that barely five months ago, the Trump administration allowed a coal mine not far from Bryce Canyon National Park to expand a further 3,500 acres. The decision is now before the courts. Thanks to performances of this calibre, one can be sure that Messiaen’s great and original masterpiece will continue to stand the test of time. Alas, one cannot be so confident about the location that inspired it