Ensemble Intercontemporain / Malkki, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Wednesday 06 February 2008
For some composers, a centenary is too soon to find a rounded perspective on their work. The music may still be widely influential, or it may have gone temporarily out of fashion. It's different with Olivier Messiaen, even though his music has never stopped being with us since he died in 1992, because he wrote half a dozen huge works at various stages of his life that have always had the effect of summing up what he was about. So there is a confidence about the South Bank Centre's year-long festival, which properly began with a blockbuster, Des canyons aux étoiles, written when the composer was in his sixties.
Partly inspired by natural sights and sounds in America, it has all the expected ingredients – birdsong, intense response to colour, religious fervour, his own rhythmic systems, harmonies like a mix of Debussy and Duke Ellington – and, in its long sequence of movements, it follows a similar pattern to his Turangalîla-symphonie of a quarter-century before. But in its layout for an orchestra of about 40 players, light on strings but big on everything else, it has a brilliant, forceful sound palette of its own.
Woodwind, tuned percussion and solo piano attempt the character of birdsong, all bright energy and no expression, and brass invokes the awesome. These have precedents, but Messiaen bound them together with extended solo horn, bringing the dimension of human response and meditation into bolder perspective. The religious dimension is different, too, less concerned with Catholic dogma, and more a pantheistic background that makes the radiant slow movement at the work's centre not so much an act of worship as the evocation of an eco-paradise.
The performance had a magnificently prepared power and sensitivity. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the festival's artistic director, took the piano solos with intense sonority and urgent pacing, as close to summoning up a force of nature as a merely human consciousness can manage. The horn soloist Jean-Christophe Vervoitte gave his virtuoso "Interstellar Call" a rare ease and spaciousness. The Ensemble InterContemporain, conducted by Susanna Malkki, produced an outstandingly well-balanced orchestral sound, by turns warm and ferocious. The sustained final chord glowed with a radiance you could almost touch.
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