Classical: Homage to the master of birdsong

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The Independent Culture
OLIVIER MESSIAEN would have been 90 last Thursday. With the BBCSO devoting an entire weekend in January to featuring Messiaen's music, the Birmingham wing of the BBC made their contribution last week through a series of broadcasting concerts, aiming to explore the context of Messiaen's music within the present century.

Messiaen was certainly not averse to thinking in terms of broad structure and lengthy timescales, so he would not have been daunted by the prospect of three concerts on Thursday evening, supplemented by a further lengthy concert the following night. For those unfamiliar with Messiaen's music, the relevance of most of the works in Peter Donohoe's enjoyable opening piano recital would only have became fully apparent during the Friday concert. Takemitsu's sublime Rain Tree Sketch II, and Tristan Murail's charming tribute, Cloches d'adieu et un sourire, found their most profound resonances during Rosemary Hardy's beguiling account of their teacher's early song cycle, Chants de terre et de ciel, and the exhilarating performance of the wartime Visions de l'Amen by pianists Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith.

The two Messiaen pieces in Donohoe's recital, Neumes rythmiques and Canteyodjaya, date from a brief period of radical experimentation (1949-51), to which only the brief Piano piece no 3 by Stockhausen suggested a kinship.

It took a pleasant stroll from the Adrian Boult Hall, through Birmingham's increasingly impressive and expanding cultural quarter, to get to the evening's main event, a three-part concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under George Benjamin, at their very smart, new, multi-functional base - the CBSO Centre.

Messiaen's importance as a pedagogue was firmly underlined through works by prominent students, linked only by their diversity. The hardest edge came from Xenakis's raw, yet curiously jaunty, Jalons, while Memoriales radiated a warm haze, with the BCMG capturing the subtle lights and shades of Boulez's dappled light piece.

In his own hands, Benjamin's At First Light was at one moment calmly lambent, and the next, gloriously refulgent. The wry melancholy of Light Blue, Almost White, by Detlev Muller-Siemens, unfortunately suffered from preceding the exquisitely refined, beautiful lyricism of Alexander Goehr's ...kein Gedanke, nur ruhiger Schlaf.

Nevertheless, two Messiaen works rightly stole the show, thanks in part to the extraordinary pianism of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. His account of La rousserolle effarvatte had its idiosyncrasies, but, as in the fearsome cadenza in Oiseaux exotiques, he was living the music, becoming in turn each one of the numerous species of birds.

As well as being an avid ornithologist, Messiaen was a profoundly religious composer. Stating the obvious, of course, but this aspect of his art was not broached until, quite literally, the 11th hour. Following a 20-minute trudge, during which the eyes were numbed by the sight of tarmac and the glare of car headlights, the hitherto absence of references to Catholicism was underlined in gilt upon entering the opulence of Birmingham Oratory, with the pungent red, blue, green and gold colours of its mosaics.

The late hour actually added to the atmosphere of Gillian Weir's recital and if the Nicholson organ struggled with some of the quieter dynamics, and Joie et clarte des Corps Glorieux took on the character of a stylophone in need of Valium, it had sufficient power to deliver the awe-inspiring conclusion of Dieu parmi nous.

Christopher Dingle