Classical Music: This one goes out to God

Messiaen's La Transfiguration is a huge work of homage.
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AS A composer who ranks among one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, and who is one of the most remarkable religious artists in the Western Christian tradition, the lack of music written for the liturgy within Olivier Messiaen's output might seem to be puzzling.

Most of his organ pieces were, admittedly, the product of his improvisations as organist for the Parisian church of Saint Trinite, but just one cycle, Messe de la Pentecote, was written for a specific function within the liturgy. There are no masses, no requiems, no hymns; no "Magnificat" or "Ave Maria".

Messiaen was asked on several occasions to write works for religious services, so their absence was no mere oversight. Rather, it stemmed from a combination of humility in the face of the subject matter and a passionate belief that plainchant, with its anonymously composed free-flowing melodies, is the only music truly capable of enhancing worship. Nevertheless, while he wrote virtually no music for the church liturgy, Messiaen did compose two liturgical works for the concert hall. The first, Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine (1943-4), is one of his most popular works. Composed more than 20 years later, the second is a colossal oratorio, La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur, Jesus-Christ (1965-9). Due to its immense size, it is infrequently performed in this country, making this Sunday's performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano an all too rare opportunity to experience.

La Transfiguration is a big work in every way. A 10-part mixed choir is partnered by a tres grand orchestra numbering more than a hundred. A striking feature is the prominence attached to instruments of the extreme bass, imbuing the oratorio with its monumental flavour and helping to create a gigantic granite edifice upon which Messiaen presents dazzling colours and launches flurries of birdsong. Unusually for a large choral work, there are no solo vocalists. However, there are seven instrumental soloists - piano (performed on Sunday by the composer's widow, Yvonne Loriod), cello, flute, clarinet, xylorimba, marimba and vibraphone - which are mostly devoted to birdsong. And God's musicians, the birds, are the real protagonists of La Transfiguration.

Between Trois petites liturgies (performed by the BBCSO as part of a Messiaen weekend in January) and La Transfiguration, Messiaen's musical language changed beyond all recognition. Trois petites liturgies explores the heady limits of the modal approach to composition characteristic of his early music, and which reaches its zenith with Turangalila-symphonie (1946-8). After Turangalila, Messiaen stripped his music of its more opulent components, concentrating instead on what Boulez has described as the "more anarchic intervals".

La Transfiguration also marks a second change in Messiaen's music. It is his first monumental act of homage which draws upon the entirety of his capacious compositional toolkit. Despite complexities of detail, the expansive gestures of La Transfiguration possess a powerful simplicity and convey a profoundly spiritual message. Innovatory techniques merely take their place alongside the plethora of existing materials.

Exploring the multitude of nuances of detail while maintaining a grasp of the overall transcendental beauty across the 14 movements of La Transfiguration poses difficulties for performers, as Kent Nagano explained. "The tempi are very, very broad and within those broad tempi, there are sections which must feel as if they are newly generated by improvisation. There are a lot of plainchant-like passages which do not really fit into a rigid metre, even though, on the large scale, they fit effectively into the overall superstructure. To keep the feeling of flexibility, suppleness and almost quasi-improvisational inspiration within the framework is challenging." A challenge that Nagano clearly relishes.

It is not difficult to see why. In this work of bold juxtapositions, Messiaen ensured that, in addition to being a heartfelt expression of his Roman Catholic faith, it is also a magnificent artistic spectacle. It is not necessary to share his theological outlook in order to be beguiled by this mysterious blend of the simple and the complex, the delicate and the powerful.

`La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur, Jesus-Christ', LSO/Kent Nagano, Sunday, Barbican, 7.30pm (0171-638 8891)