United Kingdom Messiaen: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.9.2019. (CC)
Messiaen – Éclairs sur l’Au-delà
After a programme of Emily Howard, Colin Matthews and Walton to kick off the season, Rattle gave an equally box office-risky evening, a performance of Messiaen’s late, great masterpiece Éclairs sur l’Au-delà (1988-91). Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, this is Messiaen’s great meditation on the mystery of death itself: the title is usually translated as ‘Illuminations of the Beyond’; perhaps one could also posit it contains glimpses of the beyond? It is a huge piece, eleven movements, for huge orchestra, containing huge emotions. It requires intense, sustained concentration, and the orchestra poured its collective heart out for Sir Simon.
Yes, Éclairs was the only piece in the programme, but there was an introductory speech by Rattle in which he praised Messiaen’s ‘extravagantly colourful’ score, referencing the ‘riot of sound and colour’ that one hears in Australia (we hear the rare Australian Lyrebird in the third movement). More, he said, we hear ‘an equality of fear and terror’ before the finale’s ‘ecstatic tranquility’. Rattle is as fine a wordsmith as he is conductor. He gave this introduction on an empty stage, itself perhaps a metaphor of the singular (man) against a greater other (conductor plus massive orchestra) – the musicians entered after he finished, a seemingly endless parade of instrumentalists.
Of course, it is not only birds that are within this score; there is Messiaen’s own brand of religion-based spirituality, now expressed in an almost supernatural compositional mastery. Everywhere it is evident that the composer had the means to articulate the exact timbres – and, given his synaesthesia, colours – he needed. In a performance such as this, where the technical brilliance of the LSO met the profound understanding of Rattle, the result could only be overwhelming. Rattle spoke of when he first heard the work live, and that by the end of the second movement he was crying uncontrollably and continued to do so for the remainder of the piece. It really is an emotionally overwhelming score.
The journey begins with a wind and brass-based ‘Apparition du Christ glorieux’ (Apparition of Christ in Glory); the links to Et expecto are clear. Here, we heard a beautiful succession of organ-like chords in a tremendous legato; and – worth noting perhaps, as this so frequently does not happen – with rests immaculately counted, the space between sounds so much more than ‘silence’. Put against this the stained-glass juxtapositions of ‘La Constellation du Sagittaire’ (The Constellation of Sagttarius), brass and strings producing riots of colour, blocks of sound perfectly calibrated. The journey is well and truly underway.
That avian friend, the Superb Lyrebird, heard during Messiaen’s 80th birthday tour of Australia, found Messiaen at his most gestural, each gesture perfectly articulated (‘L’Oiseau-lyre et la Ville-fiancée’ – The Lyrebird and the Bridal City); against that, the glacial strings and restless woodwind of ‘Les Élus marqués de sceau’ (The Elected Ones marked with the seal). Two plateaux, one fast, one slow, sounding as if they could go on forever. In fact, this is one of the more condensed movements into which somehow Messiaen manages to build in an intimation of another aspect of eternity, of processes that never end; we just get windows of experience of them.
The spiritual and the erotic collide, as they did in Turangalîla, in the ecstasy of ‘Demeurer dans l’amour’ (Abide in Love), scored for strings alone (without double-basses). Glowing yet transparent, the strings spoke from the heart; a bass drum instantly takes us to another plane, awesome in the true sense of the word, as it initiates ‘Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes’ (The Seven Angels with Seven Trumpets). Brass and percussion dominate in a movement itself dominated by the mystical number seven, angularity and sheer power set now against the sweet consolation of ‘Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux’ (And God will wipe every Tear from your Eyes) with its otherworldly trills. Birdsong appears in xylophone and flute (and how perfectly judged was the exchange between flute and muted horn). From this airy, avian landscape, the balancing chthonic aspect emerges in the next panel, ‘Les Étoiles et la Gloire’ (The Stars and the Glory), itself internally balanced by bright trumpet.
Perhaps the most immediately striking movement is the ninth, ‘Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vie’ (Several Birds from the Tree of Life), wherein Rattle positioned his avian wind players around the sides of the stalls An astonishing explosion of birdsong, those messengers of the angels, it rubs against the multiple meter, percussion-drenched restlessness of the penultimate ‘Le Chemin de l’Invisible’ (The Path of the Invisible).
And then, that astonishing finale, ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’ (Christ, Light of Paradise), its muted violin melody supplicatory. A triangle adds a celestial sheen to the outpouring, a sound perhaps unlike any other. It is a difficult effect to bring off, and Rattle and his players nailed it (no Christ-based pun intended). Surely, this, crowned by radiant pianissimi – and quieter – is precisely what Messiaen was aiming for?
Amazingly, it is close now to 30 years since Messiaen moved on to his ‘beyond.’ How time flies (I remember the awe in which his presence was held at concerts he attended); and how eloquently and powerfully his music still speaks and will continue to speak.
Magnificent music, magnificently performed.
This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 16 September at 19.30 and will be available for 30 days to hear online.