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SEEN AND HEARD FESTIVAL REVIEW
 

Oxford Lieder Festival (3): Messiaen, Gweneth Ann Jeffers (soprano), Simon Lepper (piano), Martin Strurfält (piano), New College Ante-Chapel, Oxford 17.10.2008 (AO)


The ante–chapel at New College is one of the most atmospheric places in Oxford. To reach it you have to go right into the college, past two quadrangles and the ruins of battlements which were part of the ancient city wall. The chapel itself is an architectural treasure. The famous reredos, a wall of sculpted saints, is “only” Victorian, but it’s beautiful, but as the college is closed to tourists at night, visitors rarely see it to advantage. Light and shadow highlight the intricate details in the carving, better than can be seen in the day. I used to go to concerts here regardless of what was on, just to enjoy the experience. The acoustics are superb, and are perfect for Messiaen’s more intimate music.

Gweneth Ann Jeffers is the leading Messiaen specialist of her generation. This year she sang Harawi twice, first as part of the South Bank commemorative (see review)
and at the Proms. Here she sang the earlier cycle, Poèmes pour Mi, Mi being the nickname of Messiaen’s first wife. The composer said that anyone wanting to understand his music should study this cycle. Indeed, it carries, in embryo, so much of what becomes “classic” Messiaen. Structurally it evolves in distinctive parts, two “books” of four and nine songs respectively. Messiaen wrote the text itself for the sentiments are most unusual. The songs celebrate marriage but encompass extreme images and theological ideas.  Registers are extreme, demanding exquisite judgement on the part of both singer and pianist; often the singer is unsupported except for the most minimal accompaniment.  Jeffers and Lepper truly have the measure of this cycle.  This was a performance so good that it deserved high profile exposure in London, and perhaps soon, for Oxford Lieder has the knack of picking the best before bigger venues catch wind of what’s happening.  That’s why it’s a Festival to watch.

Poèmes pour Mi starts with delicate moonlight tracery in the piano part which introduces L’Action de graces. The first words “Le ciel” suggest the vast panorama of feelings that will follow. The text repeats phrases starting with “Et…” like a church chant, but suddenly the song explodes in delirious joy “Et la Verité, et L’Esprit et la Grace avec son heritage de lumiere”. Then Messiaen challenges the singer with repeated Alléluias, with melismas within the word, stretching the syllables.  The fourth song, Épouvante, introduces something strange and surreal, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to those who know their Messiaen.  Jeffers sang the tricky sequence of “ha ha ha ha ha” with the savage grace that is echt Messiaen, then suddenly switched to a low “ho”. Vowels mean a lot here, for they curve round the barbaric imagery in this song which refers to things like “une vomissure triangulaire” (a triangular lump of vomit”). It’s almost like scat singing, or something from a primitive (to western ears) culture.

Typically, Messiaen switches again to the serenely mystical L’Épouse, where Jeffers kept her voice hovering, barely above the level of a whisper. Lepper’s piano entwined the vocal line, for this is a song about marital union. The balance was carefully judged. More contrasts with the songs Les Deux Guerriers, and Le Collier. The first is like a march, the lovers being “warriors”, in the sense that angels are sometimes depicted as warriors armed in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Suddenly domesticity returns, transfigured with tenderness. Jane Manning, Britain’s great Messiaen champion, wrote of this song, “One can’t help thinking of the mystical properties of crystals and prisms” for the sounds seem to refract in intricate patterns of light. The final song, Prière Exaucée, is demanding, combining guttural sounds like Frappe, tappe, choque with expansive cries, Donnez-moi votre Grace; marital love uniting with the love of God.

After such a performance, Jeffers and Lepper had to run to catch the last train!  I mention this because people so often forget performers are human, affected by the normal stresses of life. So often we consume music from recordings, losing the connection between real and mechanical processes.

Martin Sturfält, the Swedish pianist, then played three movements from Vingt Régards sur L’Enfant-Jésus.  The last time I heard this in recital was with Pierre-Laurent Aimard in February, part of the South Bank Messiaen Festival  (see review.)
He was astounding, knowing just how important that performance was and how significant the homage. This was one of the great experiences of my concert going life, so there was no way it could be surpassed. But tonight Sturfält was good.  He started with Noël, where his sweetness of tone caught the sense of happiness and wonder in the music. The 14th section Régard des Anges is more contemplative for the angels are looking down on the mystery. He played the 15th part, Le Baiser de L’Enfant-Jésus with touching tenderness: this baby is sweet, but represents the union of God and man.  Sturfält has made a recording of piano works by Wilhelm Stenhammar for Hyperion, which should be released within a few weeks, and he’s performing Stenhammar at the Oxford Lieder Festival on 21st October, with the baritone, Giles Underwood.

Anne Ozorio


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