Classical: Firts Night - Messiaen's `La Transfiguration'

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It was unlike Olivier Messiaen ever to do things by halves, especially in the long Indian summer of his career, as his La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ demonstrates. By then, Messiaen seemed increasingly reluctant to have to share a concert programme with anyone else. As such, he ensured his vast and inevitably sacred opuses took up the entire evening by themselves.

Composed between 1965 and 1969, La Transfiguration is an intense meditation on the Transfiguration of Christ. Aspects of that divine synthesis are reflected by a dense mosaic of interwoven Latin texts, drawing on sources as diverse as the Gospels, Genesis, the Epistles of St Paul and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.

Yet even more kaleidoscopic are the large, complex forces for which Messiaen calls, comprising six separate groups of musicians - 18 woodwind, 17 brass, 68 strings, six percussionists, a 100-strong choir, plus a further seven instrumental soloists.

No wonder that La Transfiguration is infrequently heard in the concert hall and why the LSO's imminent account, conducted by Kent Nagano (above), is the all the more eagerly awaited. "It was in clear weather, whilst gazing at Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau, that I grasped the difference between the modest splendour of snow and the mighty splendour of the sun - that is also where I could imagine the extent of the awesomeness of the place of the Transfiguration," wrote Messiaen.

The piece is, indeed, awesome, and pristinely balanced in two mirroring halves, each consisting of a septenary of movements. Both sets of seven movements comprise a Gospel narrative followed by two meditations; another narrative followed by another two meditations; and then two final all- embracing chorales. The shattering end has the composer asking his huge forces to play fortissimo throughout, an all-embracing hymn to the eternal.

Nagano has always been a great advocate of Messiaen, and La Transfiguration is one of his favourites. To mark the 90th anniversary of the composer's birth, this should prove a thrilling memorial. Messiaen regarded much other "religious" music as being composed from a perspective of false piety. There's nothing false about La Transfiguration - ecstasy, joy, awe and terror are all there: what you hear is what you get.

Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) 27 Oct, 7.30pm