Music: Not with a bang, but a threnody

Messiaen Weekend London, various venues The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment QEH, SE1
Click to follow
You know London's musical New Year is really underway when you reach the BBC Symphony Orchestra's weekend celebration of one 20th-century composer, this year Olivier Messiaen. Over last weekend it was possible to hear some 15 hours of his music: a lot of Messiaenism to handle. Yet the concerts attracted large (and, for modern music, unusually heterogeneous) audiences.

If John Tavener and Arvo Part are cruelly dismissed as Holy Minimalists, then Messiaen (1908-92) was a Holy Maximalist. For Messiaen, music that glorified God required elaboration, not to say fantastication, and the sheer variety of sound in his largest works is an intoxicant. Yet for all the glittering textures, there's a sameness to Messiaen's work that can be enervating. I restricted myself to four of the weekend's concerts, dipping in and out of others on Radio 3.

From a purely acoustic point of view, the radio might have been preferable, for the opening concert in Westminster Cathedral, a marvellous building that reverses ecclesiastical priorities: at earthling level, the decoration is wondrously ornate, but look heavenwards, and you're confronted with doubt-filled darkness. The high ceiling sucked every consonant out of Rosemary Hardy's performance of the orchestral song-cycle Poemes pour Mi. What remained was a pre- (or possibly post-) verbal vocalise, beautifully delivered, but almost buried by the orchestra. The performance of Eclairs sur l'au-dela survived better, conductor Andrew Davis working with, not against, the lengthy sound-decay.

This, the last piece Messiaen completed, reminds me of Michael Tippett's The Rose Lake, not because they sound like each other but because both composers, whose music often sounded over-filled, said goodbye to the orchestra with music that allowed bracing sparseness alongside gorgeous colours, as in the ninth movement of Eclairs, which uses woodwinds only, but gives then no fewer than 18 different interwoven birdsongs to play. If the acoustic smudged some of the colour, it was still rapt and moving, the location adding to the sense that this music hangs between Heaven and Earth: Messiaen's obsessive love of birdsong gave voice to a pantheistic streak that rooted his Catholicism in this world, not only in the "au- dela", the Beyond.

Davis and his orchestra were magnificent throughout the weekend. Their other concerts were at the Barbican, acoustically more pliant if architecturally less striking, while in the neighbouring Church of St Giles, principal cellist Paul Watkins was joined in Quatuor pour la fin du temps by Lars Vogt (piano), Michael Collins (piano) and Isabelle Van Keulen (violin), the last so fulsomely pregnant that it threatened to become a quintet. Messiaen wrote the piece while a prisoner of war in 1940. For the Christian, of course, the end of time promises glory. This is no bleak threnody, but an often ecstatic outpouring. Not every movement achieved absolute precision, but that mattered little in a performance of quiet intensity, Collins in particular making his clarinet sing magnificently.

One of the most engaging characteristics of Messiaen's music was his fondness for the ondes martenot, that pioneering electronic instrument that sounds like a musical saw. The ondes made two appearances during the weekend, played by the composer's sister-in-law Joanne Loriod, firstly in Trois petites liturgies, a remarkable piece for women's voices (BBC Symphony Chorus), strings, piano and ondes. The text (Messiaen's own) veers happily between religiosity and quasi-surreal nonsense, and often sounds like an elaborate playground chant. It was the piano, played with tremendous flair by Steven Osborne, that stole the glory.

Loriod returned for the weekend's final concert, this time joined by her pianist sister Yvonne, Messiaen's wife and dedicatee of much of his music. Their presence added a sense of authentic occasion, and some forthright playing, to the performance of the mighty Turangalila Symphony, probably the composer's most celebrated work. Its opening phrases would not be out of place in a 1940s film noir, the ondes martenot lend a sci-fi feel, and the music repeatedly hangs over the abyss of Hollywood bathos. Only a performance of absolute conviction such as this can rescue it, Andrew Davis allowing the music to approach stasis when necessary, but still generating a tension that made the climax a shattering release.

Turangalila seems to proceed by a logic that is both inexorable and improvisatory, although the precision it requires is anything but improvised. Improvisation per se has little part to play in contemporary performance (a huge loss, some would say), yet Messiaen himself was an able improviser in his capacity as organist at the church of Sainte-Trinite in Paris, a post he held for over 60 years. That context is one of the few in which the disciplines of classical music and improvisation co-exist, but the American pianist Robert Levin is doing his bit to effect a rapprochement, improvising his own cadenzas and embellishments in Mozart and Beethoven, in the process resurrecting a facility both composers thought inseparable from the act of performance.

Last Thursday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Levin, directing from the keyboard, performed two of Mozart's piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. After the grandiloquence of Messiaen, this was music-making on a more human scale. Placing his fortepiano (a replica of a late-18th-century Viennese model by Anton Walter) centre-stage, he had the string players half-turned towards him but, far from placing the audience outside the circle, it drew us in, as if Levin were a campfire storyteller. The unforced tone of his instrument had a delightfully bluesy plangency, its hushed rhetoric demanding attention. Levin's delight was plain for all to see. One moment he would grin at the turn of a keyboard phrase, the next cock his head quizzically to catch an instant of beauty from the flute, inches behind his right ear. He listened to his players, and they seemed delighted to follow him.

Levin's confidence in Mozartean manners generates embellishment that some might find excessive, but there's always an idiomatic and questing musicality at work. His cadenza for Piano Concerto no 24 took him into territory of almost Romantic darkness, while that for no 25 stayed closer to the material of the opening movement. As with all improvisation, it's impossible to know how much is genuinely conjured from the air, and how much resorts to familiar gestures, but the element of fantasy Levin brings to his playing is a deeply felt response to the musical impulse.

Between the two concertos, he conducted a performance of Mozart's Symphony no 39 that breathed easily, with a lovely lightness in the string playing, and magical interplay between Lisa Beznosiuk's flute and Antony Pay's clarinet. As a conductor, Levin has an engagingly unorthodox gestural language, stiff and cranky like a puppet with a broken string. The audience loved it, and so, it seemed, did the orchestra.

Michael White returns next week.