Classical: Not strictly for the birds

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The Independent Culture
THE BBC'S Barbican weekends devoted to a single 20th-century composer are now a long-established and valuable feature of January's musical calendar. But it's a pity that no living composer has been the subject of such intensive treatment since John Tavener in 1994.

The style of the late Olivier Messiaen is famously recognisable, even when his beloved birdsong is not involved, but his static musical structures could pall in such large doses.

The inclusion of several French interpreters of distinction - notably the pianist Yvonne Loriod, the composer's widow - helped to counter this: just one among the many achievements of Visions: The Music of Olivier Messiaen.

Two particularly stunning performances must be singled out of multi-movement works which would otherwise threaten to try the patience of any listener less saintly than their own creator.

Des canyons aux etoiles was given an account of great finesse by the London Sinfonietta under George Benjamin. And the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a former Loriod pupil, offered a performance of the two-hour Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesus which not only had one of the weekend's several gratifyingly large and attentive audiences on the edge of their seats, but also saw Aimard himself part company from his piano stool several times in the course of a tour de force of great spiritual depth as well as almost scary pianistic control and passion.

Loriod herself - given, or choosing, the church acoustic of nearby St Giles, Cripplegate - maintained her authority in the interpretation of her husband's piano music, playing a mixed programme culminating in five excerpts from Catalogue d'oiseaux with great clarity and command of both shaping and resonance; many, though, could not see her due to the poor sightlines.

Each of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's three evening concerts under Sir Andrew Davis really demanded a review to itself. The massive Eclairs sur l'au-dela for 128 players, Messiaen's last completed work, was given a rare outing, somewhat blunted by the acoustics of Westminster Cathedral, where we also heard Naji Hakim's stirring account of La Nativite du Seigneur. The hugely enjoyable culminating performance of the Turangalila Symphony, with Jeanne Loriod on ondes martenot as well as her sister at the piano, was an inevitable highlight.

This was preceded on the same day by its companions in the trilogy of 1940s compositions that Messiaen wrote around the Tristan myth. Cinq rechants was given a sharp-focused reading by the BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury in the evening concert.

The song-cycle Harawi, another rarity, was given by Susan Bullock and Iain Burnside in St Giles in a recital that concluded with an all-star performance of the well-known Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Both were intense; the quartet verged on interpretative overkill.

I was particularly glad to hear well-prepared, rivetting accounts of Chronochromie and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, more modernist 1960s scores for which the word "hieratic" seems invented, and which are seldom heard today. Altogether a substantial, heart-warming and triumphant occasion.