Review: LPO - Messiaen’s Des canyon aux Ã©toiles
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
Saturday 2nd November 2013
Finally! After all this time on theSprout.co.uk, I get to talk about one of my great loves in art.
I am of course speaking about the French composer Olivier Messiaen.
Regarded as one of the finest and important composers of the last century, his music is radical and filled with glorious colours, yet still resoundingly beautiful and harmonious. Just the other night in Cardiff, I discussed him with a fellow concert goer, who declared him ‘a one-off’. There is little dispute there. But I have in the past fallen foul of great criticism and teasing for my love of his music. It doesn’t matter now. The music means too much to me.
It’s been five years and ten months to the day since I last heard this live (then performed next door at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to commence a year long festival of his centenary in 2008). Since then I own a CD version with Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod on piano (he wrote all his piano work for her) and him supervising the recording (you won't here it better than this). So how would it fare this time round after knowing the piece so well now?
Des canyon aux Ã©toiles (From The Canyons To The Stars) is an astounding achievement in music. Inspired by the wonders of nature that Utah had to offer, we see Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park all listed as their own immense movements. These staggering places of natural beauty all inspired Messiaen and he would go on to incorporate other elements of his life, such as birdsong (he transcribed many birdcalls in to his music), his Catholic faith, astronomy and many other fascinating subjects only he could have meshed together. Utah has even honoured this fine French composer by renaming the White Cliffs as Mount Messiaen. High praise indeed.
As it stated in the programme, ‘this is no musical tourism’, but rather the music in certain ways actually being these places and ideas, in a sound world that could only be thought up by Messiaen. This has also been dubbed the longest work for piano and orchestra ever written, since it can nearly touch upon two hours in a concert hall (no interval). But the amount of players for this tumultuous work is surprisingly small with just over forty people in the orchestra. But this is not including the four soloists who each have their own mountains to climb when it comes to music. So we had Tzimon Barto tackling the immense piano part, John Ryan on horn, Andrew Barclay on xylorimba and Erika Ã–hman on glockenspiel.
Barto certainly has the charisma for the vast role for the pianist. He may have taken some liberties with playing (he felt too slow at times, loosening the dimensions of the work). His legs alone played a heavy role in his playing, with much jittering and near yoga like positions of his legs under the piano stool. His hammering and thrusting on the keys remained a standout point of the concert. This can be quite viscous playing when its wants to be. The bird calls demand it.
Ryan was on stage playing the whole work, but he had the whole sixth movement to himself. Entitled Interstellar Call, it is sounds that should be heard through space to hopefully reach God's ear (in Messiaen’s view). It contains a lot of interesting techniques for the horn player and with two whole movements just for the piano as well, it’s a very intimate but broadly spread part of the work. Barcley (who looked no older than 16 years from where I was sitting) and Ã–hman on percussion had flair to spare. They never really stop playing and are perhaps even as important as the conductor for this composition. Our maestro Christoph Eschenbach kept the momentum going with panache and heaps of determination, but I could only see so much of him since the piano lid invaded my vision. The only flicker of his baton or glimpses of his bald head was enough to see just how he works as a conductor.
It should also be pointed out that Messiaen even invented his own percussion instrument for this. The GÃ©ophone is a flat drum filled with a thousand tiny pellets to give the sound of shifting earth (very calming, almost like white noise). After the premier in New York he took it back to his hotel room for safe keeping, locked it away, then went down for the celebratory meal in his honour. This along with the wind machine and thunder sheet add to the huge natural elements the works bring out so much of. The orchestration is also masterful. Getting the trumpeter to remove his mouth piece and blow into it. Having the double bass player use a metal rod to mesh up and down his strings. All exciting stuff.
A great deal more percussion is used with everything from a bass drum, to tubular bells, woodblocks (used brilliantly to convey the Clark Nutcracker bird) and even shell chimes. In his next project, his only stage work: Saint FranÃ§ois d’Assise (Saint Francis Of Assisi), he would use the largest use of percussion and musicians I’ve yet to see. Hopefully another performance of this milestone in music will be soon enough...
The sound world heard here is unbelievable. What he brings out of under fifty players defies any reasonable explanation (it feels it could be triple that). Never has a composer depicted so well its inspiration of landscapes. The last movement (Zion Park And The Celestial City) is certainly my favourite. We hear brass corals, flurries of stupendous bird calls once more and at the very end, some of the most mesmerising music I have ever heard. We leave Zion Park and head upwards to the Celestial City and the players deliver such sweet metallic sound. The rhythms and timbres here (as always in his music) are undisputedly extraordinary. It takes you by surprise as it chimes out, finishing with a radiant A major chord on the strings. Messiaen spoke of the end: 'the bells ring out heralding the ultimate joy'. I was in tears by the end, giving out a sigh of relief that I had made it through this symphony of colour once more.
A remarkable achievement in sound.
IMAGE: Tim Hamilton