From the Canyons to the Stars: The Music of Olivier Messiaen – Cinq Rechants & Harawi

Le Jeune
Le printemps (Revoici veni du printemps)
Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Cinq Rechants

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano) & Simon Lepper (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 February, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The SixteenThis oddly constituted concert was perhaps the only means of accommodating two of Messiaen’s most significant yet singular works in the Southbank Centre’s centenary retrospective. The pieces in question are the outer panels of his loose triptych inspired by the Tristan myth – once seen as a parenthesis (albeit a major one) in his output but which increasingly seems to have been a transition, both personal and creative (not that the two can or should be separated), within his life as a whole.

Coming after the lavish expanse of Turangalîla-symphonie, “Cinq Rechants” (1949) is easy to underestimate – its five brief settings for a dozen unaccompanied voices, to highly oblique poems of the composer’s own devising, shot-through with personal associations. Yet Messiaen’s procedure of alternating verses and refrains, along with framing introductions and codas, has seldom been realised so deftly – what elsewhere can feel formulaic here given a teasing unpredictability through the deployment of subtly contrasted material and the starker alternation of voices. Aspects to the fore in this scrupulous and satisfying account by The Sixteen – bringing resilience to the music’s rhythms and clarity to its harmonies such as have eluded earlier performances. Harry Christophers guided his singers through what might (as Paul Griffiths has suggested) be a five-part ‘Mass’ of singular cast with unobtrusive rightness: the performance gaining conviction from its context in music that undoubtedly inspired Messiaen – first the rhythmic elasticity and harmonic finesse of Claude Le Jeune’s “Le Printemps”, then the capricious demeanour and knowing archaisms of Debussy’s “Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans”.

Excellent as was the music-making prior to the interval, it was surpassed by that following it. The last and by far the most demanding of Messiaen’s three song-cycles, “Harawi” (1945) is among its composer’s most intense statements – though what used be thought evidence of a growing love for his pupil Yvonne Loriod is now accepted as despair over the deteriorating mental condition of his wife Claire. Not that either is more than relative to the actual music: a combination of a vocal line thatranges from stark declamation to plaintive vocalise with piano writing that, even by the standard of Messiaen’s solo works, pushes textural extremes and imaginative variety to their respective limits.

Gweneth-Ann JeffersNot a work, then, to be revived at all frequently – making the present performance one to treasure. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (who made a highly favourable impression in Szymanowski some years ago) was impressive in a work whose twelve songs range from the rapt inwardness of its framing numbers to the explosive force of the seventh and melismatic ecstasy of the ninth in the cycle. Nor did Messiaen’s exacting integration of French poetics with a Peruvian-derived syllabic agility undermine either her technical command or her emotional response. No less convincing was Simon Lepper in capturing the piano-writing’s superfine dynamic shadings as well as its intricate figuration, both rendered with a clarity that banished (if such were needed!) any thought of his role being that of an accompanist.

“Harawi” cannot be listened to often if its rarefied soundworld is to retain its full potency. Suffice to say that this performance received a standing ovation – as if in acknowledgement that the sheer intensity of its 52 minutes was unlikely to be surpassed over the remainder of this Messiaen season.

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