MUSIC / Preaching to the converted: Stephen Johnson on Pierre Boulez's tribute to Messiaen and Belohlavek's Ma Vlast

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Olivier Messiaen's official status as one of this century's musical greats now looks fairly secure. A cynic might say that his death just over a year ago set the final seal on that. But, for the non-devotee (and there are still one or two), he remains a perplexing figure. As a Catholic, he was apparently as devout and loyal as Bruckner, but how many Catholics even today are entirely comfortable with his marriage of traditional theology and exotically perfumed sexual imagery? (Not the current Pope, one imagines.) As a composer, he is one of the most distinctive voices of our time, and yet, in how many other composers would such blatant self-duplication be tolerated?

Listening to Chronochromie in Sunday's performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, it was difficult not to be drawn into this luxurious, brazen sound-world in which non-developmental thinking carries such potent conviction. But then, after the interval, came La Ville d'en Haut - 28 years later, different scoring, but much of the substance virtually identical, especially the clattering, crazily syncopated xylophone- marimba birdsong.

Was this bad planning on Boulez's part, or a form of sly criticism? Boulez has been critical of quite a few components of Messiaen's musical universe. He too has grumbled about the birdsong, and about the F sharp major love music in the Turangalla Symphony. Given such extensive reservations, one might have expected a slanted approach from Boulez the conductor. And, to these ears, the devotional rapture of Poemes pour Mi and the final 'Priere du Christ montant vers son pere' from L'Ascension sounded a good deal less humid than usual.

The clarification, the refusal to smooth over Messiaen's deliberate discontinuities, made sense, the purification of the lyricism added to its beauty - as did the powerful, eloquent singing of the soprano, Francoise Pollet. But these are white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant-agnostic ears that don't take easily to musical weddings of Christ and the Kama Sutra - nor, it seems, does that arch-moralist Boulez. Others may well have found it too chilly, too cerebral, not at all the utterances of 'une ame qui desire le ciel'. There's no disputing matters of taste - or, if you prefer, one man's Matre is another man's parson.

In certain sophisticated circles it used to count as bad (or, at least, odd) taste to like Smetana's Ma Vlast. Then came Raphael Kubelik's Prague performance three years ago, just after the Velvet Revolution, in which the six- movement cycle was re-revealed as blazing, beautiful unity. Perhaps the experience was unrepeatable. When the Czech Philharmonic played the complete Ma Vlast in the Festival Hall last Saturday, it never quite recaptured the heights. The playing was superb, of course - alertness and enthusiasm right down to the triangle, and firmness of ensemble that came close to the miraculous. Jiri Belohlavek shaped it all strongly but not tyrannically; the final feeling of cohesion was at least partly his achievement. But the urgency of that Kubelik performance, the sense that the proud repetitions of the 'Vysehrad' motif really meant something to the players - that was harder to find. Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised: things have changed in Prague since spring 1990.