Rameau and Messiaen

Written by: Colin Anderson

Conductor Sylvain Cambreling talks about his BBC Symphony Orchestra concert of Rameau and Messiaen on 22 March in the Barbican…

It’s rare that the 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau is juxtaposed with the 20th-century’s Olivier Messiaen. But that is what conductor Sylvain Cambreling is doing in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 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 there’s 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.”

Rameau’s 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 Cambreling’s approach to Rameau with an orchestra like the BBCSO? “It’s 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 it’s good, thank god! It’s 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, I’m less worried about sound and more concerned with style. We’re 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; it’s better to do Rameau with an orchestra like the BBC than an only-Romantic orchestra.”

Cambreling describes Messiaen’s music as “inspired. He needed to do what he did. He created a very special sonority.” Included in this concert is L’Ascension, one of Messiaen’s earliest pieces and one with so many trademarks already in place. “In L’Ascension 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 o’clock 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 L’Ascension, does one have to believe or can the music be appreciated purely on its own terms? “I’m convinced of that. It’s 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 L’Ascension 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 I’m conducting for thirty years! It was a good help in the beginning; today it’s what I know in between. But psychologically I know what an orchestral musician is waiting for. Today everything’s changed; the musicians are different today than thirty years ago; I don’t think I use my early experience anymore. I’ve 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. Cambreling’s 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
  • Barbican
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 16 March 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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