Superb, joyful Messiaen in Simon Rattle’s final Barbican concert as LSO Music Director

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jolas and Messiaen: Faustine de Monès (soprano), Peter Donohoe (piano), Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 15.6.2023. (MB)

Sir Simon Rattle ends his final concert as LSO Music Director © Mark Allan

Betsy Jolas – Ces belles années
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

Simon Rattle’s tenure as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra has been cruelly cut short by English nationalism. The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, together with Theresa May’s spiteful quashing of a new concert hall project on the grounds that it had been supported by her political enemy George Osborne, ultimately proved too much. And who can blame him, with a family in Berlin? There is only so much fighting one can do. If a great city such as Munich made me an offer, I should be off like a shot. Not that London in general or the LSO in particular has seen the last of Sir Simon; he will return as Conductor Emeritus, not least to continue the Janáček opera series whose Katya Kabanova this January was so resounding a success. The world is grim right now; Britain is grim right now. Perhaps, though, we should not entirely despair. Even in straits as dire as these, the LSO and many of our cultural and intellectual institutions continue to punch far above the weight our miserable, philistine rulers accord them. And a concert such as this, Rattle’s last at the Barbican as Music Director of the LSO, can still prove the equal, even the envy, of the musical world.

The first part – one can hardly say ‘half’ when it must have come to about a sixth the length of the rest – was a new work by Betsy Jolas: Ces belles années. Given its first performance the night before, so not strictly a premiere, it proved typical of the composer, arguably typical of the musical and broader culture in which she is rooted, in both proving eminently ‘approachable’ and yet reticent in yielding its secrets. The opening, untuned percussion ceding, or perhaps transforming/being transformed into, the sounds of an orchestra neither small nor large, sounded ominous, harmony either playing a surprisingly ‘traditional’ role or pretending to do so. Whether that were play or something more ‘late’ and reconciliatory remained, at least for me, in the balance. It is difficult, of course, not to think of the work of a composer well into her nineties as ‘late’, just as one did with Elliott Carter at that stage and beyond. (With Carter, one found oneself resorting to ‘late late…’ and eventually simply to ‘most recent’.) But here there did seem, however, obliquely, to be a sense of looking back on a life or lives well lived, perhaps as much a tribute, intentional or otherwise, to Rattle as anything else. There was unease in the petering out of rejoicing: sung words and lines, delivered with laser-like, charismatic artistry by soprano Faustine de Monès, and also orchestral applause and foot-tapping.

Were the soprano’s words, ‘for the occasion and without pretension’, quite so straightforward, even anti-literary, as they might seem? ‘Oh, la joie de ces beaux jours. Célébrons sans cesse ces beaux jours, toutes ces belles années, venez, venez, amenez vos amis. Et toi le tout petit dans ton berceau tu viendras aussi. Et vous là-bas qui passez, venez aussi. Chantons tous ensemble, chantons la joie.’ Perhaps, or was there at least a hint of despair or resignation in having reached this stage, whoever the subject may be, only to fall back on them. Who knows? That may be more a question for the listener than the performer. Not everyone, after all, immediately resorts to Beckett or Mahler. The finely crafted precision of Jolas’s writing is difficult not to stereotype as ‘Gallic’. In a way, why should one try, so long as it does not save one the effort – and rewards – of actually listening. If I found less of an infectious sense of play than I often have with Jolas’s music, maybe I shall just have to try harder — and/or listen differently. I should certainly welcome the opportunity.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts pianist Peter Donohoe, ondes Martenot player Cynthia Millar and the LSO © Mark Allan

No such doubts here concerning Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, though many have had them over the years, not least Pierre Boulez, first among equals in Messiaen’s galaxy of great pupils. Boulez celebratedly or notoriously performed only the three ‘Turangalîla movements’ out of the complete ten, in a 1973 Proms performance of what he once derided as ‘brothel music’. Some brothel! Whilst in many ways a conductor in Boulez’s own line – Rattle’s exploratory programming and collegiality surely bear Boulez’s stamp – Rattle, not so far as I am aware a composer, has broader and also younger sympathies. Indeed, as Boulez once pointed out, prior to conducting an Olga Neuwirth premiere, whilst it might once have made sense for him to declare Schoenberg dead, that was hardly a pressing concern for Neuwirth and her generation.

There were hints, in a good way, of a Boulezian way in Rattle’s performance here. Further laser clarity, ironically helped by the difficult, dry Barbican acoustic which, miraculously, did not overwhelm, was certainly one of them. One could hear every note, every line, every balance — or at least fancied one could. (There is Klingsor-Ravelian magic to Boulez too, after all.) And there were at times signs of a Boulezian ‘modern classicism’, to borrow from Arnold Whittall, which one does not necessarily expect from Rattle. The final movement, indeed, sounded and functioned far more like a traditional symphonic finale than I can recall, earlier performances by Rattle included. Indeed, the work’s unfolding, pli selon pli if you like, was not only remarkably patient and inevitable; it made perfect sense of form and structure in a way I have not always found from Rattle in Austro-German repertoire.

The warmth, though, even in the Barbican was entirely Rattle’s own — well, his, Messiaen’s, and the superlative performers’. Temperature could cool, as in those three ‘Turangalîla’ movements, but the base line was higher, could rise, and did. (Not that Boulez could not be warm too, but in a different way.) The sheer big-heartedness of Messiaen’s vision, as well as its paradoxically earthy mysticism, reaching for the stars and yet penetrating – certainly penetrating – deeper, did not merely came across; it grabbed one by the throat and anything else that took its fancy. Peter Donohoe’s pianism would have been spellbinding in itself, cadenzas scintillating and plumbing depths that brought affinities to Russian composers such as Mussorgsky to vivid light. As part of this orgiastic rite and riot it was all the more so. Likewise, Cynthia Millar’s ondes Martenot: so much more than a strange ‘effect’, akin to a continuo gone rogue, whose duetting and ensembles with all manner of other instruments was quite something aurally to behold. Much the same could be said of Elizabeth Burley on celesta and Zeynep Özsuca on keyed glockenspiel. Melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and a sheer joy in creation to rival Bach or Haydn were both determined and radically free. There were no soloists here; rather all took their place in a zany cosmology both developmental and static, for now and for eternity, of Messiaenic love.

Mark Berry

Both LSO concerts were filmed for future broadcast on Marquee TV and Mezzo; this, the last of the two, was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 30 June.

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