From the Canyons to the Stars: The Music of Olivier Messiaen – La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ

La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ

Pierre Laurent-Aimard (piano), Kenneth Smith (flute), Mark Van De Wiel (clarinet), Karen Stephenson (cello) and David Corkhill, Kevin Hathway & Peter Fry (percussion)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Kent Nagano

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Kent NaganoAny Messiaen festival the size and scope of “From the Canyons to the Stars” needed to include the oratorio “La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ”. Composed during 1965-69, it effectively opens the final phase of his output: one in which his rethinking of harmony, rhythm and orchestration are realigned – if not always reconciled – with the French musical tradition. In the context of a then contemporary music scene caught between post-serial uncertainty and political radicalism, such a large-scale devotional statement must have seemed perverse and yet, four decades on from its Lisbon premiere, Messiaen’s desire to bring together his musical past and present can be seen as a harbinger of the more pluralist outlook that was to take root over the following quarter-century.

From the outset, Messiaen knew that this was to be his largest work since the Turangalîla-Symphonie of 20 years earlier (the subject could hardly admit otherwise), and “La Transfiguration” is certainly a testament to its own ambitions. The 14 movements are divided into two septénaires which follow similar formal and expressive trajectories, though the second of them is almost twice as long. Four of the movements (I/IV and VIII/XI) are designated ‘Récit évangelique’, predominately sung by male voices and accompanied only by untuned percussion, which set the tone for those to come. The initial two movements that follow (II/III and IX/X) contemplate the ‘arrival’ of Christ – first to his disciples and then to mankind as a whole – in music that brings the assembled instrumental forces into play. The ensuing two pairs (V/VI and XIII/XIV) build towards the culmination of both text and music, while the concluding movements in each (VII and XIV) are chorales that effect a relative degree of closure.

Olivier MessiaenThe choral-composition ranges from plainchant and homophonic-writing to a more variegated declamation, though projection of the text is paramount. The expanded orchestra employs large complements of woodwind and brass (including three tubas but, as was customary with Messiaen, no harp or timpani) as well as six percussionists. Additionally, seven musicians are given concertante roles that to some degree take the place of vocal soloists, their roles encompassing individual and ensemble passages – with the latter embodying some of the most intricate ‘birdsong’ that Messiaen had yet attempted.

At around 100 minutes, “La Transfiguration” is a difficult work to make cohere, but few present-day conductors are better equipped to do so than Kent Nagano – who gave a memorable performance in Westminster Cathedral at the time of Messiaen’s 80th birthday. Opting (rightly) to forgo an interval, he presented the work as a powerfully sustained totality whose emotional unfolding is as cumulative musically as it is theologically. All but one of the ‘soloists’ was drawn from the Philharmonia Orchestra (whose identity with Messiaen, as with French music in general, was much in evidence), and acquitted their roles with dedication – not least Karen Stephenson in a cello part written with Rostropovich in mind. The exception here was the pianist, but having probably the greatest living Messiaen exponent was not to be gainsaid and Pierre-Laurent Aimard delivered his part with the expected clarity and immediacy.

The very nature of the work, as well as its gradual unfolding, means that “La Transfiguration” will likely remain a work that appeals primarily to the Messiaen afficianado. Yet its stylistic juxtapositions are invariably meaningful both in relation to each other and in their treatment of a text assembled, as was the composer’s wont, from a diversity of Christian sources (who else could have imparted such blazing fervency to the doctrinal speculations of St Thomas Aquinas?) – so that there can be no doubting its ecstatic intent. Indeed, as Nagano built the final movement with typically understated yet palpable conviction, the sheer grandeur of Messiaen’s inspiration was unequivocally reaffirmed.

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