La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ

Messiaen
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ

Gerard Bouwhuis (piano)
Adam Walker (flute)
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Sonia Wieder-Atherton (cello)
Colin Currie (xylorimba)
Adrian Spillett (marimba)
Richard Benjafield (vibraphone)

Philharmonia Voices
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer


Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: 27 July, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Olivier Messiaen. ©Malcolm BallThe celebration of Olivier Messiaen’s centenary continued with one of his most spectacular works, “La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ”. Composed between 1965 and 1969 to a Latin text compiled by Messiaen, it is structured into two parts of seven movements each and requires a large orchestra and mixed choir. As so often with Messiaen, the composition was inspired by his deep Catholic faith, in this case the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain as reported in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Although there was a disappointingly large number of empty seats for such an occasion, there was nevertheless an air of expectancy in the Hall. The sense of anticipation was no doubt enhanced by the sheer number of performers (over 200 singers in the choir), as well as the vast array of instruments, including various solo instruments, ten double basses, two tubas and various percussion including a vast bass drum considerably taller than its player.

Thierry Fischer. Photograph: LephotoIn his marshalling of such forces, Thierry Fischer didn’t disappoint. The performance had both enormous physical impact (the tam-tam in the opening bars sending reverberations into the Hall’s furthest reaches) as well as a feeling of spiritual profundity. A lot of the credit for this was down to the orchestra; not just the outstanding percussion section, but also the rich and fluid strings and the wonderfully projected and controlled brass.

The combined forces of Philharmonia Voices, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National Chorus of Wales brought an impressive fervour to both Messiaen’s a cappella recitatives and his ecstatic, slow-moving chorales. The women’s voices in particular evoked a wonderful sense of distance and timelessness in the fifth movement, ‘Quam dilecta tabernacula tua’.

Messiaen’s customary birdsong is represented by flute, clarinet, xylorimba, marimba, vibraphone and piano and performed with exceptional vividness by the various soloists (especially pianist Gerard Bouwhuis, standing in at short notice for the indisposed Dénes Várjon). The work also makes considerable use of solo cello, a part originally written for Rostropovich and here played with compelling artistry by Sonia Wieder-Atherton.

However, despite the dedication of the performers, it was difficult to escape a feeling of monotony during the 17-minute span of the ninth movement, ‘Perfecte conscius perfectae generationis’ but there also were moments of such overwhelming sonic grandeur that it seemed the roof of the Hall would be launched into orbit.

Altogether, then, a remarkable occasion, the work making a vastly greater impact here than on recordings. Apart from a few people who left early, the audience was remarkably hushed and restrained, as if in devout contemplation. However, the BBC came close to wrecking the atmosphere after movements 7, 10 and 12 by holding up the performance while a Radio 3 announcer, voice audible throughout the Hall, provided commentary to the listeners at home.

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