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The Music of Olivier Messiaen,  From the Canyons to the Stars: A report from Anne Ozorio, South Bank Centre, London, 1 February – 10 December 2008 (AO)

Olivier Messiaen (left) and Pierre-Laurent Aimard

“This is the most comprehensive Messiaen retrospective ever” said Gillian Moore, Head of contemporary culture at the South Bank.  She’s right. This is a festival of international significance, which will be remembered as a landmark for many years to come. Olivier Messiaen’s influence cannot be underestimated.  He bridges tradition and innovation. Indeed, Messiaen is a key to appreciating most European music since the mid 20th century.

The Festival Director is Pierre-Laurent Aimard. “We met”, he says modestly, “because my piano teacher was Mme Loriod”. He was twelve years old. Mme Loriod was Messiaen’s muse, collaborator and partner for nearly 50 years.  Indeed, it is because Aimard was so close to the composer that this Festival is unique.  On 2nd February, Aimard and George Benjamin, who met Messiaen aged 17, discussed their personal memories of Messiaen’s personality.  He was so charismatic that they learned a lot more from him than “just” music.  He was an unworldly figure, who could sit “serenely calm” for hours on end, “like a rock”, but was always listening acutely. What might seem to others as his naivety springs from his innate simplicity and purity of spirit.

He was also systematic and objective. He had 12 pairs of spectacles lined up, each for a specific purpose. This translates into his music, where every little detail is there for a reason and must be clearly defined. Messiaen often used the image of a stained glass window to describe his work. A stained glass window is magnificent because light shines through it, making it a blaze of myriad colour.  Yet it is made of numerous individual fragments of glass, each unique, depending on their hue, density of glass, angle of placement etc. Moreover, as light changes, the colours reflect and refract differently : nothing remains unchanged even though the glass itself doesn’t move. It is a wonderful metaphor for what happens in Messiaen’s music.

Aimard also knows everyone connected with the composer. This is about as authoritative a festival as there is ever likely to be. Mme Loriod may not be playing, but Aimard, Uchida, Latry and Salonen will be there, and Pierre Boulez, perhaps one of Messiaen’s closest associates, will be conducting the keynote concert on the very day of the composer’s centenary, 10th December.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard -  Picture © Guy Vivien

Monumental works like Turangalîla-symphonie, and La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ aren’t heard often enough live because they require such forces, but they are so spectacular that they can’t be missed.  Aimard himself is playing another tour de force, Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus.  It will be an experience no recording can quite match.  A newly-published piece for piano and violin, Fantaisie, is being premiered. The famous Quartet for the End of Time gets two performances.  Only the opera, St Francis of Assisi, is missing.  Sometimes, it’s just not possible to overcome “the charm of impossibility”, a phrase Messiaen himself created.  It’s good that we already have so much.

Another special feature of this Festival is that it places Messiaen’s music in context.  He was a highly spiritual person, for whom music was an expression of profound faith.  The Festival actually started with a conference on music and spirituality.  Although Christian symbolism infuses most of his work, his is a spirituality which transcends specifics, seeking a higher communion with the very essence of belief.  Stockhausen, Boulez, Pärt, Grisey, Takemitsu and others may not write “Christian” music as such, but their work is enhanced by this powerful sensibility.  Messiaen’s interest in birdsong, nature and non-western cultures stems from the idea that God is in all things.  Similarly, his interest in synaesthesia comes from the idea that sound and sight connect intuitively.  On 15th February, there’s a forum on interpreting visual images in performance.

Messiaen himself played the organ nearly every day at the Trinité, so his music for organ will feature prominently later in this Festival.  The South Bank will include “North Bank” venues such St Paul’s Cathedral.  The great organ at Westminster Abbey will be used for a performances of Apparition de l’église éternelle and La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Latry, who will also be giving a masterclass.  Organists don’t often get so many chances to gorge themselves on feasts like this.

Three days a week, Messiaen devoted to teaching, because he believed so strongly in the value of nurturing talent.  Many events are taking place at the Royal Academy of Music, inspiring a new generation.  This is particularly good programming, too, because it means many smaller works can be included.  Also being performed are works by those whom Messiaen learned from, such as Dukas, and those he taught. Gerard Grisey’s superb Les Espaces acoustiques  receives its long overdue UK premiere on 14th October.  Messiaen taught the teenage Boulez, and used his music to teach others. Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum is being performed with Boulez’s Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna, a composer whom they both knew.

A very good example of Aimard’s enlightened approach to this Festival was the Study Day on the Quatuor pour le fin du Temps, held on 3 February. Aimard gave a cogent analysis of the work, playing “Messiaen chords” on the piano to demonstrate.  The basic cells shift imperceptibly, “like the turning of a kaleidoscope”.  Values change, rhythms change and sometimes there are extra notes. “It is a game of permutation, a game of time”, he says.  This is nothing like Bach, or the kind of conventional polyphony we’re used to.  Messiaen’s  polyphony exists as if in suspension.  Layers don’t depend on relationships to interact, but flow of their own volition.    This is “the music of immateriality”, defying concepts of time and movement, a radical approach to fundamental assumptions on the nature of music.  He had Paul Watkins and Marianne Thorsen play the violin and cello first as Messiaen suggested, then in conventional mode.  Watkins also demonstrated how the notorious cello passage is played, so close to losing the legato.  Time and sound are stretched to their limits.

Cameras were in the hall to film the proceedings. What will eventuate will be interesting.  In another time warp Messiaen would have enjoyed, there was a first screening of a new, unreleased film about the Quartet for the End of Time.  Titled The Charm of Impossibility, it describes how the piece came to be written.  It was filmed in Görlitz in Silesia, on the site of the former POW camp. At first it seems as if the huts in the camp are being shown.  Then the camera moves.   What’s being filmed is just a scale model.  A former POW walks around the trees where the camp used to be.  All traces are gone, and he says “I’ve lost my bearings”.  That in itself is a good metaphor for what the music is trying to express.

There’s a reconstruction of what that first performance might have sounded like, where the prisoners played on broken, tuneless instruments.  The film makers found instruments of the right vintage, with similar defects. The cello strings were so worn they had almost no vibration, and one of the piano keys was broken, just like the one Messiaen used.  The musicians even wore the same kind of wooden clogs the prisoners wore. These make a cracking sound as they move on the wooden floor. It must have been interesting to manipulate the pedal of the piano.  The film ended with another performance with conventional instruments played in a ruined building.  When the violin holds its last long notes as the piano fades into silence, the film merges the image of the stage with the image of the bare stone walls.  Gradually we see less and less of the musicians, as their image merges into the abstraction of the wall. Then all we see is the impenetrable surface of the stone itself. Again, this expresses the granite like angularity in the music, the strong Angel from the Book of Revelation, and the idea of Time itself, paradoxically changing and unchanging. 

The Nash Ensemble returned to play the Quartet through uninterrupted.  I couldn’t, however, shake the image of the filmed reconstructed POW performance in its harshness and desolation.

Anne Ozorio

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