At the outset of the new concert season, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra paradoxically turned their minds to final things in Olivier Messiaen’s last completed orchestral work, translated as ‘Illuminations of the Beyond …’ (1988-91). Their robust performance reminded, however, that this is no starry-eyed, cotton-wool-inhabited adumbration of eternity, but a highly intense and colourful vision of the hereafter, rooted in this-World experiences. Messiaen drew, for much of his inspiration, upon a then recent trip to Australia – for those in northern Europe, so far around the globe as to be practically another universe – with its vivid sights and sounds, not least in terms of his beloved birdsong.
The LSO’s gravely serious, rather than ethereal, sequence of chords which opened the first movement (‘Apparition of Christ in Glory’) set the tone for the rest of the work’s duration, here sixty-four minutes in total. That opening rose to an incandescence which anticipated the lucid ecstasy of the string-laden, slow fifth and eleventh movements which round off the cycle’s two halves. A slight portamento was permitted for the former (‘Abide in love…’) imbuing it with additional passion, whilst the flowing, rhythmic flexibility of the latter (‘Christ, Light of Paradise’) pushed on to provide a mystical warmth to the conclusion.
More obviously descriptive or theological movements were marked with arresting vigour, not least the vociferous birdsongs on the flute in the second movement (‘The Constellation of Sagittarius’); the rhetorical flourishes undertaken by the orchestra to characterise the Lyrebird of the third movement; and the insistent xylophone-scored calls hammered out amidst a halo of lush string sonority in ‘The Elected Ones Marked with the Seal’. The woodwinds’ avian chatter in ‘Several Birds from the Tree of Life’ was memorable not only for its musically strident birds, but also for the stereophonic effect created by having some of the flutes and clarinets shrieking from around the lower floor of the auditorium.
Where it is easy for interpretations of Messiaen’s vast orchestral canvases to become a mere succession of startling timbral effects, almost a caricature of textures and techniques, Rattle here set them within an overall lyrical trajectory, to constitute a consistent sequence through the sequence, and drawing an emotional and thematic unity through their variety. The colours brought out by the LSO often recalled Messiaen’s earlier, secular masterpiece, the Turangalîla-Symphonie, just as the struggling, upwards theme of the tenth movement (‘The Path of the Invisible’) was reminiscent of the Symphony’s dynamically ascending, rushing motif with ondes Martenot, establishing common strands across his output.
Beforehand Rattle spoke about his relationship with the work – one that features only rarely in the concert hall, but of which Rattle has become an enthusiastic advocate, as I still remember vividly a Proms performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2004. He also movingly quoted the composer’s words at the time of writing Illuminations when confronting his mortality and, in an act of homage, raised the score during the applause at the end. Whatever one’s beliefs about the afterlife, and in a world of increasing rancour and fear which threatens to lose sight of the spiritual, this performance compelled respect and awe for the sincerity and boldness of Messiaen’s vision.