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Gérard Grisey, Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Pascal Rophé (conductor), Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, 30.11.2008 (AO)

Seeing the 3000 seat Royal Festival Hall filled for a relatively obscure modern piece is quite an event, proving that there is an audience for cutting edge new music.  This was perhaps only the third performance of Gérard Grisey’s Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil in London since its premiere in 1999, but its reputation is such that it drew a crowd that would easily have filled the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall. Anyone who saw the ecstatic audience reaction to the last Grisey concert in October 2008, would not have been surprised at the turnout. Grisey was one of the most innovative of Messiaen’s many students, and continues to influence many others, even after his untimely death in 1998.


Grisey was interested in psychoacoustics, which may sound grand but means simply, the way the brain translates sounds into feeling. While the music  is intricately detailed and requires focussed attention, it also operates on a profoundly intuitive emotional level.  It works in harmony with body rhythms like breathing. It’s so attuned to the human pulse that this music can function like deep meditation, liberating the mind from clutter. Indeed, I often think of this cycle as “Quatre chants for fraîchir la seule” – four songs to refresh the soul.

Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil refers to the idea of “crossing the threshold” between life and death.  The title comes at the end of a piece by Claude Vivier, Glaubst du, an die Unsterblickheit der Seele.  In this latter work, Vivier imagines what it must be like to be killed, and asks, “Do you believe in the Immortality of the Soul ?” Eeerily, a short time after these words were written, Vivier was murdered, stabbed by a stranger. Shortly after Grisey completed Quatre Chants, he too died suddenly, struck down by an aneurysm aged only 52. In neither case was death or premonition any part of the compositional process, even though the knowledge may colour the way we listen.  Quatre Chants indeed “overcomes” death with its message of transcendence.

starts with long silence.  Gradually, waving chords enter, not discordant, but disjointed. "" sings the soprano, vertical sounds over the hazy horizontals around her. Gradually the patterns merge, the voice part disintegrates and reforms in abstract, transcended form, soaring like an arc, stretching outwards into space. Then comes the incantation, based on sacred Egyptian texts instructing the soul on its journey from death to immortality. The texts are fragmented, and the music hovers as if intuiting the gaps in the transmission. Each stage in the ritual is numbered and intoned, since what's even more important than the detail is the sense of inexorable forward movement. "Laisse moi passer, laisse moi passer"....then "formule pour être un dieu"'.

More wonderfully shaped moving sound, deep timbred instruments like contrabass clarinet, muted tubas and trumpet, contrasted with the high voice. "Le voix s'épand dans l'ombre".  Grisey believed that sound was like a living organism that moved and shaped itself in performance, so the form the music takes in this piece changes and grows. At first you hear only the rumble of drums like distant thunder and barely perceptible rustling, hurrying sounds like wind. We're crossing something..... Circular arching trumpet sounds, more rustling, speeding up, punctuated by sharp single notes from percussion and harp. Then waddling tuba and screeching (but harmonic!) saxophones and clarinets. We enter a new place, vivid with clear, uncompromising light.

Then the “Death of Civilization”, with a text from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. Human bodies have turned into a vast sea of clay, but to the prophet, it's a terrace open onto an endless horizon. “I opened a window” sings the voice, “and daylight fell on my cheek”. The violin part is painfully beautiful, and there's a steady hum vibrating in the background. Of the final Berceuse, Grisey said it's not a lullaby but "music to the dawning of humanity finally liberated of its nightmare".  Sensitive conducting from Pascal Rophé, a specialist in this visionary music, drew finely detailed performances from members of the London Philharmonic, musicians so good that they adapt perfectly to repertoire so different from mainstream fare. Maya Iwabuchi played the poignant violin part with grave dignity.

Please see the review of this piece by Hubert Culot written on its release in 2002. The performance on the recording is even better, though comparison really isn’t fair, given that it was such a privilege to hear this masterpiece again in live performance.

Anne Ozorio

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