Ces belles années…
Faustine de Monès (soprano)
Peter Donohoe (piano) & Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 15 June, 2023
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Of all the concerts being promoted as Sir Simon Rattle’s last as LSO music director this repeat of the previous night’s Barbican Hall event was perhaps the most plausible contender. The Messiaen will be heard again in Edinburgh and Bucharest – that’s in addition to Berg’s Wozzeck (and more) at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence plus a Mahler 9 at this year’s Proms and elsewhere. Plainly this maestro is not going to vanish as Claudio Abbado once did and his Barbican appearances with the LSO as Conductor Emeritus will be eagerly awaited. That said, it was not easy to escape some sense of anti-climax on the night. The hoped-for Rattle legacy, a new concert hall at the apex of a cultural mile, is long gone. Within the confines of the Barbican Library Sir Simon has apparently been immortalised in bronze by a celebrity sculptor whose previous subjects include Boris Johnson.
It is a testament to the conductor’s continuing drawing power that an attentive crowd filled the hall (twice over) for a buoyant programme which might once have been rated box-office poison. André Previn, one of the first mainstream conductors to tour the Turangalîla-Symphonie, a work he taped with the LSO in 1977, remembered mass walkouts in American cities unfamiliar with the music. Nowadays it occupies a secure if distinctive place in the repertoire, for all that neither Leonard Bernstein nor Pierre Boulez thought much of it. Bernstein dropped the piece after conducting its early performances. It was Walter Goehr and the LSO who introduced the score to London in June 1953.
Rattle, a frequent and acclaimed advocate, was joined here by two expert, long-term collaborators. His CBSO commercial recording, dating from as long ago as 1986, also featured Peter Donohoe at the keyboard. This time the pianist was equipped with a finger operated electronic device in lieu of the sheet music still employed by his colleagues. One feared he might lose his place amid the torrent of notes, but no. Whether muscular or delicate, his contributions were always poised and suitably glittering. Messiaen himself made revisions to the printed score in 1990. I’m not sure how much difference that makes. ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ (movement 6) began as a deft intermezzo (qv. Hans Rosbaud in 1951) but Rattle was scarcely alone in taking it more slowly in the 1980s, seizing upon an erotic potential rarely found in contemporary music. The current evocation of blissful ecstasy was clearly designed to seem motionless, every detail exquisitely sculpted with muted strings and the ondes Martenot tactfully balanced. Cynthia Millar’s total mastery of this early electronic instrument did not mean that she sought to dominate ensembles. Or had that more to do with the seating plan? Donohoe and subsidiary pseudo-soloists (including Elizabeth Burley’s celesta and Zeynep Özsuca’s keyed glockenspiel) were placed at the front of the stage on the conductor’s left with only the ondes and its array of loudspeakers stage-right and hence further from my seat.
With so many performances under his belt Rattle now applies more oomph to extrovert passages and further idiosyncrasies of nuance in moments of repose. As always with this team on peak form, complex textures were elucidated with X-ray specs over a far wider dynamic range than is usually heard from British orchestras. The sheer volume was not always comfortable in the Barbican’s notoriously cramped acoustic – the brass unstinting – but passages showcasing woodwind or strings could be magical too, virginal and cleansing as well as Hollywood-sumptuous. The standing ovation seemed merited.
Before the interval we had an eccentric utterance from a 96-year-old Franco-American maverick. Betsy Jolas grew up in inter-war Paris surrounded by great literary names – including Joyce and Hemingway – and was given her first teaching opportunity at the Paris Conservatoire by Messiaen himself. Contemporary without being doctrinaire, she would seem to have ploughed her own furrow. The first part of Ces belles années… toys with deconstructed shards of musical memory and unexpected texture, the scoring chamber-like, to the point, definitely Gallic. There was some controlled foot stomping and a ripple of applause from inside the orchestra, The composer rather lost me once soprano Faustine de Monès, strikingly attired in red and charismatic in manner and voice, arrived with a wave to sing some brief platitudes about joy. At the close the score and its executants dissolved into laughter. Happy or ironic, nostalgic or sinister, purposeful or futile? One couldn’t tell. Was that perhaps the Beckett-ish point? The elderly composer, acknowledged in person the previous night for the premiere, did not seem to be present. The applause was guarded.