Edinburgh International Festival 2003 – Messiaen (25 August)

Oiseaux exotiques
Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine

Steven Osborne (piano)

Cynthia Miller (ondes martenot)

National Youth Choir of Scotland

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 August, 2003
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

With a highly personal Mahler Six in his debut concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony, and a lucid Shostakovich Ten at this year’s Proms, Ilan Volkov is making his mark with the orchestra in no uncertain fashion. The present concert brought together three of Messiaen’s most distinctive works, though the prevalence of birdsong in the first two pieces may have disguised the versatility inherent in the composer’s approach to his singular ’raw material’.

Certainly its usage in Chronochromie (1960) is a complex and intricate one. The soundworld too – no piano but awash in percussion – is among Messiaen’s most varied, and Volkov brought out this quality in full measure. What the performance lacked was a discernible follow-through between sections, such that the whole became more than the sum of its admittedly impressive parts. The lack of a cumulative increase in intensity between the corresponding Strophes and Antistrophes told in this respect, though the Epode’s counter-pointing of 18 examples of birdsong on solo strings was scintillation itself, and Volkov found a hieratic majesty in the chordal reiterations of the Coda.

Oiseaux exotiques (1956) followed – Messiaen’s integration of a diverse range of birdsong into an intensifying sequence of piano solos and ensemble passages, and perhaps the most compact and approachable of the scores from his ’experimental’ years (roughly 1948-63). Steven Osborne has established himself as a Messiaen pianist of distinction, and his partnership with Volkov lacked nothing in co-ordination and precision of response, though memories of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s quicksilver account with George Benjamin and the LSO at the Barbican in February was not effaced.

Whereas the performance of the Trois petites liturgies really was one to savour. Many of the techniques and procedures of Messiaen’s later years are adumbrated in this score, whose use of the ondes martenot is something of a ’dry run’ for its more varied role in Turangalila, but its direct and sensuous manner of expression can become cloying in anything less than a performance of absolute poise and focus. Which is what it received from Volkov, whose bringing out of the music’s joy and elation was unhampered by reticence or inhibition. Excellent as were Osborne’s and Cynthia Miller’s contributions, the real stars were the National Youth Choir of Scotland – projecting Messiaen’s poetic fantasies with trenchancy of articulation, clarity of diction and what sounded to this reviewer to be impeccable French.

As a programme, this was not the best overview imaginable of Messiaen’s creative potency, but those present cannot have failed to head out into the mid-evening gloaming without a lasting sense of the Liturgies’ unorthodox but life-affirming act of worship.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 17 September at 7.30

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content