Review: BBC SO – Messiaen’s Ã‰clairs sur l'au-delÃ ... @ Barbican
My inaugural trip to the Barbican Centre would be for my deep and passionate love for the music of Olivier Messiaen. Those of you who read my review of his Des canyon aux Ã©toiles will know just how much of a fan boy I am of his. Since London is becoming a second home from Cardiff for me (as I start rehearsals for Puffball at The Roundhouse next month), there is more Messiaen to hear and other events to follow.
Floundering around the City of London, I shooed away bankers and scoffed at how many times I saw the city’s emblem (it's everywhere!). This concrete jungle is very stark and severe, very much like Messiaen’s music. The Barbican itself is a maze of many levels, with its concert hall, theatre, cinemas and more. I was slightly overwhelmed there.
Conductor Sylvain Cambreling was indisposed and unable to appear for this concert. To save the day was BBC NOW's previous principle conductor, Thierry Fischer, who, as always, was incandescent in his role. A worthy ambassador to Messiaen and other composers, he introduced the audience to new pieces rarely performed in Cardiff.
Before the grand piece, we had a work by Messiaen’s favourite composer: Mozart. His Sinfonia concertante is a double concerto for violin and viola and here featured the soloists, Veronika Eberle and Antoine Tamestit. Standing each side of Fischer, the chemistry between them was electric, and the gentleness and melodic sway of the work helped cleanse the palette. You realised just how much Mozart wrote, as well. Will we ever tire of his music? I think not.
Then on to the main event, Ã‰clairs sur l'au-delÃ .... Translating roughly as 'Flashes of the Beyond', this was Messiaen's last completed work and the largest of his orchestral works (126 players). After his monumental and only opera, Saint FranÃ§ois d'Assise, he vowed never to compose again. This would be false and Ã‰clairs would become the highlight of his post-opera compositions. This towering work, as always with Messiaen, deals with his obsession with Catholicism, bird song (48 birds feature here, including the amazing Australian lyre bird, ancient Indian and Greek music, the stars, etc. A few months before his death, he said of the work, ‘I imagined myself in front of a curtain, in darkness, apprehensive about what lay beyond: Resurrection, Eternity, the other life.'
I have this work on CD (the Simon Rattle recording), but nothing could prepare me for hearing it live. With the acoustics so swell in the hall, and the players crammed on the stage, this is very much music to hear live. The eye-bulging amount of percussion, woodwind (7 flutes!), heavy brass and mass of string players make it a spectacle, even in just viewing them all. But strangely, the players very rarely play together and go above tenor range. The first movement, Apparition of Christ in Glory, is purely for brass and woodwind, giving off some pleasing sonorities. The final movement, Christ, Light of Paradise, is an agonised but illuminating part for the strings and a single trilling triangle. The parallel firth movement, Abide in Loveâ€¦, is also a great solo for the strings and had me in great waves of tears and lip quivering.
His musical style certainly has come a long way, but somehow he was able to maintain its roots. How easy it is to compare this work to elements of L'ascension (movements for just one part of the orchestra); the choral work, La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur JÃ©sus-Christ (the huge number of players); and the organ piece, La NativitÃ© du Seigneur (shared musical themes).
Imminence, whirling and downright funky.
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