MUSIC: Small acts of devotion: Nicholas Williams on London Sinfonietta's Messiaen tribute

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The Independent Culture
If fate had been kinder, he might have been there in person. As it was, Monday's London Sinfonietta concert at the Barbican, third of a four- part series originally planned to celebrate Messiaen's 85th birthday, was a commemoration with its own specially written homage from George Benjamin, former pupil and still-rising star of British music.

Even as such things go, Tribute was pretty short: five minutes of translucent scoring, with spidery jottings of harp and pizzicato in the first half, accelerating to an eloquent flugelhorn solo delivered by John Wallace. Its impression of closure through surging rhythmic energy was confirmed by a repeat performance that spoke with greater confidence and conviction.

In a revealing pre-concert talk with conductor Kent Nagano, Benjamin described a studied move away from the world of his teacher. But on the evidence of this small act of devotion, and the recent Sudden Time, the shift is inevitable. His dynamic music surges forward; Messiaen's, in Benjamin's own words, is staunchly anti-directional.

Just how much so was shown in Couleurs de la Cite Celeste, a mosaic of brief, seemingly jumbled sections that show, according to taste, the composer's best, or worst, enthusiasms: religious fervour, birdsong and plainsong, and a personal theory of colour-harmony that surely remains opaque to most listeners.

Starting the evening with such rebarbative Messiaen was a decisive gesture, but one that yielded positive results. The clarity in Nagano's reading made sense of the hectic formal ontlines, the brusque instrumental alleluias and impersonations of bellbird, parsonbird and the like.

The penalty lay in the absence of burning conviction. The 'terrors of the abyss', famously depicted by clarinets and brass, seemed nothing more than a little local difficulty. Awe, not drama, is the context of this music; in which terms, the delivery here was small indeed.

Part of the problem was lack of nuance. Too often there was a shrillness of timbre and dynamics that blunted all but the coarsest gradation of sound. Gremlins remained in Oiseaux exotiques, though restrained by the work's more delicate scoring.

The Sinfonietta players can soar to exalted levels of achievement when form and substance gel, yet this reading refused to take artistic flight despite Nagano's firm conducting and Paul Crossley's able pianism. Was it something wrong in the evening's chemistry, or a general tiredness? Plans for 1994, with new names among Sinfonietta composers, may indicate a hopeful renewal of direction.

The temperature rose in the closing Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine, Messiaen at his most disarmingly radical in the swooning chords of the final Psalmody, the Sinfonietta Chorus at high energy in the Sequence du Verbe. Soloist Jeanne Loriod matched the exotic tones of her ondes Martenot in a sparkling dress of sequinned blue.

The final Messiaen commemorative concert is on 10 Dec, 7.30pm Barbican, London EC2Y (071-638 8891)