Conductor Sylvain Cambreling talks about his BBC Symphony Orchestra concert of Rameau and Messiaen on 22 March in the Barbican
Its rare that the 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau is juxtaposed with the 20th-centurys Olivier Messiaen. But that is what conductor Sylvain Cambreling is doing in the BBC Symphony Orchestras Barbican concert on the 22nd. I try to make a bow, an arch, in French music between one of the first composers who writes for the orchestra, Rameau, and Messiaen, who is one of the final big symphonists of French music, although maybe Henri Dutilleux will be the last. What is the definition of French music? Clarity and well-designed rhythmic figures that are intimately coloured. Also the play with virtuosity, which is always in French music, beginning with Rameau, and the mixture of sound in the orchestra; already Rameau was writing for four bassoons, and finding special colours, and theres also the lightness and the pleasure of dance. Form is important. French music is not rhapsodic, but really organised; Rameau and Messiaen both represent that.
Rameaus music is constantly inventive, lyrical and rhythmic. Given the success that musicians such as Frans Brüggen and William Christie have had with him, what is Cambrelings approach to Rameau with an orchestra like the BBCSO? Its right to think about this, but this music is not the property of the baroque musician. We still play Bach and Handel on modern instruments, and its good, thank god! Its right for a symphony orchestra to play this music; of course, we cannot have the baroque sound, but we must play without vibrato and make the right ornamentation and use less bow pressure on the strings. But the joy of this music! Anyway, Im less worried about sound and more concerned with style. Were playing the ballet for Castor et Pollux, alternating fast and slow music. Because the BBC Symphony plays much modern music, they have to change style from one composer to another; its better to do Rameau with an orchestra like the BBC than an only-Romantic orchestra.
Cambreling describes Messiaens music as inspired. He needed to do what he did. He created a very special sonority. Included in this concert is LAscension, one of Messiaens earliest pieces and one with so many trademarks already in place. In LAscension we can find the influence of Debussy; here is this bow of French music again Rameau, Berlioz, Debussy, Messiaen. The second inspiration of Messiaen is the birds, special material; one bird, a second, a third we can hear a summer morning at 5 oclock when all the birds are singing together. Thus, the other Messiaen work in this concert is Réveil des oiseaux. The pianist will be Roger Muraro who Cambreling describes as a friend and Messiaen specialist.
Given the religious inspiration of LAscension, does one have to believe or can the music be appreciated purely on its own terms? Im convinced of that. Its the same with Bach. We can hear the Passions or the B minor Mass without belief; the music is so great, inspired and humanist. The big message of all the great composers who wrote religious music Bach, Mozart and Messiaen is that the inspiration is so great that it becomes universal music. In LAscension there is meditation and the dance of joy; for Messiaen the joy of life is a thanks to god. Rameau and Messiaen are joyful.
At the beginning of his career, Cambreling was an orchestral trombonist; has this experience served him well as a conductor? I played in the orchestra for five years and Im conducting for thirty years! It was a good help in the beginning; today its what I know in between. But psychologically I know what an orchestral musician is waiting for. Today everythings changed; the musicians are different today than thirty years ago; I dont think I use my early experience anymore. Ive always championed contemporary music and love mixing classical and modern music. It works well. When we spoke, Cambreling was preparing a concert in Baden-Baden (where he is Chief Conductor) of Messiaen and Haydn. Cambrelings Hänssler discography is well worth seeking out and includes numerous works of Messiaen.
Concert at Barbican Hall on 22 March and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3