The concert was a celebration for Elliott Carter and the late Olivier Messiaen, born on 11 and 10 December respectively. The only piece not theirs on the programme was Derive 2, which Boulez began writing for Carter's 80th birthday and which was finished, in this latest version, in time for his 85th. It proved to be a typically fleet net of sound. Written for small mixed group including piano, horn and harp, it toyed Carter-like with short atonal figures that turned on themselves, flicked into multi-layered action by sharply plucked or punched single chords. An increasingly busy, note-packed weave resolved into a brief final outburst of rhythmic unanimity: piston-like syncopated dance patterns stated in unison then played off against each other.
Messiaen's Un vitrail et des oiseaux, the gemlike miniature which prefaced it, showed the composer finding natural sonorities of an incisive brilliance to rival any synthesiser. Rows of woodwinds, xylophone, marimba and piano banged out his favourite, glowing harmonies in a series of separate tableaux. This was Messiaen at his most stylish and formal, as inscrutably simple as gamelan music, and as irresistible.
It was pointed out in the programme note that two composers could hardly be more dissimilar than Carter and Messiaen (so much for astrology). Where Messiaen trundles on, concordant and seraphic, Carter ducks and dives through a passionately intricate, dissonant rhythmic discourse where no two events are the same and where the drama is as speedy as the movements of an eyeball.
Players from the two ensembles came together for Carter's Oboe Concerto of 1988. This is Carter for people who are baffled by Carter. A traditional concerto treatment of soloist and orchestra as sparring partners results, not in a concert warhorse, but in a bracing walk that is also a dialogue with endless fascinating incident, each fragment shapely and curious. Oboist Laszlo Hadady's concentration and skill were such that one was carried attentive through every teeming step.
After the interval, the Philharmonia took over with a more recent Carter piece, Three Occasions, completed 1989. It was composed in stages: first a discreet 150-bar salute to the Houston Symphony Orchestra on its 150th anniversary; next an exceptionally big, dark, austere memorial piece for Paul Fromm; and last a present for Helen Carter on the 50th year of their marriage, a lovingly skittish cascade of invention around a recurring clock motif.
Messiaen's Poemes pour Mi has been sung by some luscious voices but probably never by a soprano who took its devotional/sexual inspiration as seriously as Maria Ewing did here. Formal and composed in her stance, eschewing vocal luxury in favour of a fervent textural clarity that took personal risk to the point of inchoate cries when demanded, she was unforgettable. It made you realise how rarely the dramatic opportunities that new music can offer singers are genuinely taken up, and how exciting it can be when they are.