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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 68: Debussy & Messiaen, Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, Monday, September 6th, 2004 (CC)
Messiaen’s music still has the capacity to scare people away - even from the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Prom. There were empty seats this particular evening (and a few were vacated as the piece progressed.) A shame, as this performance, more than any recording I have heard, convinced me that Messiaen’s last major work, Éclairs sur l’Au-delà, is a masterpiece.
But first, some Debussy. An orchestra grounded so thoroughly in the Germanic tradition as the Berliners giving an entire concert of French music is something in itself. Rattle seems to hold some affection for La mer (certainly not the first time I’ve heard his interpretation), and his knowledge of the score did indeed seem complete.
It was refreshing to hear the opening truly ppp. Rattle characteristically graded his crescendo carefully (there was nothing above mp for what seemed like an eternity), with a chamber music approach to texture in evidence (wind solos were amazingly well-defined, so that even the bassoon spoke clearly.) There were so many plus points: refulgent, luxuriously-toned ‘cellos, exquisitely balanced brass chording. Yet some accents for tutti strings sounded over-rounded, easily identifiable as Berlin rather than Paris (or French Eastbourne, for that matter!)
Technically, ‘Jeux de vagues’ (the second movement) was faultless. The appearance of what sounded like a Bavarian gait (in heaviness of rhythm) at one point surprised, though; neither was this movement as elusive as it can be. Again individual contributions were jaw-dropping (a trumpet solo blessed with preternatural delicacy), yet doubts continued … only to be swept away by the ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer.’ The grumblings that initiate this movement here sounded remarkably modern, remarkably forward-looking and at the same time basely elemental. Rattle the harmonist made us aware of the power inherent in Debussy’s harmonies while Rattle the structuralist simultaneously carried the music’s line with an awe-inspiring sense of inevitability. Warm strings moved like massive molten lava; brass gave their chorale in the most ringing of tones. If the interpretative standard of the finale had been present on the opening two movements, this sea would have been unforgettable.
So, then, to Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’Au-delà. Translation of the title is the first hurdle, but consensus of opinion now gives us ‘Illuminations of the Beyond.’ Set on an hour-long canvas (just over), there is plenty of what one would expect from this source. Birds are present and correct (and in abundance); huge orchestra; Biblical-mystical inspiration.
Rattle has the ear for this sound-world, both in terms of detail and the larger picture. There are eleven movements (the shortest, ‘Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vie’, ‘Birds in the Trees of Life’, is only around three minutes), each ruminating on matters Universal.
This was not the Proms première, for Andrew Davis and the BBCSO had played it five years ago. Not a performance I heard, but I can hardly imagine it would hold a candle to this. The first movement, ‘Apparition du Christ glorieux’ (‘Apparition of Christ in Glory’) is a chorale for wind and brass that recalls L’Ascension (1932-3.) Here it was a great mass of sound, with the instrumentalists moving exactly together (an imposing line-up of seven flautists caught the eye straight away.) It is true that some of the harmonic shadings were shared with Debussy (thought: maybe they could have fitted Jeux into the programme as well.) The real purpose of this movement seemed to be to take the audience into a different, slower, deeper, more meditative state of listening and indeed awareness, to make us experience music on a different time-scale. And how it worked …
Sagittarius was the composer’s own star-sign, and here it is in ‘La constellation du Sagittaire.’ Chorale influence again here, but this time bell-decorated, then contrasting sections including controlled-aleatoric flutes and a supremely expressive ‘cello line.
Messiaen the celestial dancer brought us ‘L’oiseau-lyre et la Ville-Fiancée’ (‘The Lyrebird and the Bridal City’), a very active movement during which Rattle underlined the importance of silence in Messiaen’s music. The ‘gaps’ spoke, an integral part of the argument.
Darker undercurrents marked the hyper-fragmentary ‘Les élus marqués du sceau’ (‘The Elect, marked by the Seal’) and led to the movement that is effectively an instrumental hymn, ‘Demeurer dans l’amour’ (‘Abide in Love’). This is Messiaen’s equivalent to late Beethoven string quartet slow movements, ultra-delicate and here marked by a preternatural level of communication between the players involved. There are hints here of the perfumed eroticism of Turangalîla, but it was the contemplative nature that sticks in the mind. Those super-high long violin lines that Messiaen loved were here possibly the best one will ever hear them.
No surprise surely that the movement entitled ‘Les sept Anges aux sept trompettes’ (‘The Seven Angels with the Seven Trumpets’) was huge in impact. Spacially disjunct drums heightened the impression of unstoppability, ensuring maximum contrast with the next movement, ‘Et Dieu essuira toute larme de leurs yeux …’ (‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes …’) Distinctly conciliatory in nature, Messiaen’s amazing ear for scoring was ever in evidence.
What came across most strongly from ‘Les Étoiles et la Gloire’ (‘The Stars and the Glory’) was the composer’s use of gesture and how it was never just that … never was this gesture for gesture’s sake. One was always aware of the place in the larger canvas. A contrasting aviary, ‘Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vie’ (‘Birds in the Trees of Life’ – all 25 of them) had Sir Simon acting as traffic warden, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s wind revelling in the challenge. A violent and modernistic ‘Le chemin de l’invisible’ (‘The Path to the Invisible Paradise’) led to the radiantly beautiful and intense ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’ (‘Christ, Light of Paradise’), another hymn for strings, this time shot through with the silver of a trilling triangle. The Berliners’ string sound was exactly right, warm and transported.
In a performance such as this it is impossible to highlight individual members or even sections. On an interpretative level, Rattle made one believe in the sublime nature of Messiaen’s vision, the vision of that rare creature, a true Christian mystic. Remarkable.
Messiaen: If you want to sample before you plunge in, it is possible to hear excerpts of Cambreling’s Haenssler recording with the SWR Symphony Orchestra free on LudwigvanWeb. There you will also find a free download of the CD booklet. Rattle himself, though, has just issued this very work with the Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI, taken from a live performance: EMI 557 7882.
Debussy: I concur with David Gutman’s choice in his Recommended Recordings slot in the Proms programme about Haitink’s Concertgebouw traversal of La mer on Philips Duo 429 742-2. This is a collection that offers remarkable value for money.