Castor et Pollux Suite (arr. Gevaert)
Réveil des oiseaux
Roger Muraro (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 22 March, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
To a regrettably small audience (the musicians for L’Ascension probably outnumbered the punters in the hall), the BBC Symphony Orchestra offered a highly unusual programme of what might be described as the extremes of French music. Opening with an admittedly 19th-century-sounding suite from Rameau’s 1737 opera “Castor et Pollux” (made by François Auguste Gevaert), the concert then jumped forward over 200 years for a Messiaen double-bill, first Réveil des oiseaux with Yvonne Loriod-pupil Roger Muraro (the bird-imitating piano part was written for Loriod), dating from 1953, and then the 1933 L’Ascension, in its original orchestral version. Sylvain Cambreling – not a regular over here – was our guide.
With smooth, flowing movements, but a fingertip quip to the baton that clearly marked each beat, Cambreling, in snazzy white-dotted tie and sleeveless black cardigan, coaxed detailed and secure performances out of the BBC players. There was no string vibrato in the Rameau (Cambreling had been working in the studio the previous week with the orchestra, on Rameau’s “Dardanus”, so the musicians had time to assimilate what must have been a radical new style for them, regarded principally for their flexible, but contemporary expertise. There was certainly a nod to authenticity in the size of band: three double basses, three cellos, and slightly expanded from there on up, with bassoons, flutes, oboes and – Gevaert’s most telling addition – a pair of horns, adding chordal texture.
The suite of stately, if not quite irrepressible in this performance, dances was followed by a classic, but not often programmed, gem in Messiaen’s bird-song repertoire, Réveil des oiseaux. Roger Muraro, tall and spindly as a stork, was a rather stiff and diffident voice for the nightingales to start (or perhaps that was just a perception in comparison with Rameau’s dance rhythms), but the performance settled down as dawn approached and the larger ensemble (although no oboes) each took a bird-call. What helped immeasurably was Paul Griffiths’s lucid programme note, which detailed most of the 38 bird-songs that Messiaen used in his aural soundscape describing dawn to noon in the countryside.
So to L’Ascension, given a wonderfully secure and resonant performance, which – in its monumental pursuit of its own ends – is an overwhelming work whether you hold Messiaen’s Catholic tenets dear or (like me) not. The brass, particularly, with its young team of trombones and tuba produced a glorious blended tone for the wind and, belatedly, strings to match and the final shimmering sound hung in the air even after Cambreling’s final beat. Music is spirituality and nowhere better than in this work.