The Southbank Centre's 11-month celebration of the music of Olivier Messaien began with a paean to nature, Des canyons aux étoiles (1974). Inspired by the vast planes and cataracts of the Utah and Arizona landscapes, the metreless songs of their birds, the depthless beauty of their starlit skies, and the bold hues of their rocks, this dazzling work translates a lost-for-words joy into sound.
Performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, horn-player Jean-Chris-tophe Verviotte and conductor Susanna Malkki in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Saturday, Des canyons... suspended clock-time for its 100-minute duration. We tend to think of Messaien as a sort of Holy Fool: an innocent, a visionary, someone removed from the rest of musical history. But this virtuosic, eloquent performance emphasised the umbilical cord that connects his music to that of his predecessors. Catholic, synaesthete, ornithologist and organist, he inherited a predisposition for harmonic revolution and rhythmic freedom that extends back to Ravel, Debussy, Berlioz, Rameau, and the bird-like melismas of the airs de cour.
It was curious to hear Des canyons... in a week when I was otherwise occupied with Dowland, a composer intoxicated by the chemistry of consonant and vowel. Messaien is all vowel. Save for the odd instance of word-painting in his songs, his music moves in an almost anti-verbal language of light and colour. My other listening material, Mozart's last concertos, was equally incompatible: elegant, architectural, rational. The proportions of Des canyons aux étoiles are wholly irrational, even comical. Is it an orchestral work or an oversized chamber piece? The white-browed robin, mockingbird and wood-thrush he describes are eight octaves wide, the ancient rocks of Bryce Canyon and Zion Park translated in terms of their impact rather than their appearance, the stars expressed in uninhibited daubs of iridescence. As with Bach's Passions and Beethoven's Symphonies, Des canyons... is a mighty evangelist for what its composer called the "gift of awe".
The next day Aimard led a workshop with The Nash Ensemble on Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940). Written and premiered in Stalag VIII-A, Silesia, where Messaien was imprisoned and where 15,000 soldiers died, it is as full of pity as Des canyons... is full of wonder: a moonlit threnody punctuated by dreams of despair (Abîme des oiseaux), rapture (Vocalise pour l'ange qui annonce la fin du temps), apocalypse (Danse de la fureur), remembered gaity (Intermède), and watchful sorrow (Louange à l'éternité de Jesus). Concise and insightful, the workshop was followed by the second faultless performance of the weekend, in which violinist Marianne Thorsen and cellist Paul Watkins became the unbreathing voice of the angel, pianist Ian Brown the chiming bells and waterfalls of eternity, and clarinettist Richard Hosford the uncomprehending birds.
Common wisdom has it that Messaien's greatest decade was the 1940s, that what happened next was never quite as good. Certainly it was never as loud. In the still problematic, honey-I-shrunk-the-strings acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall – a venue that doesn't so much favour the brass as nibble their ear-lobes and ask how they like their eggs – Esa-Pekka Salonen's performance of Turangalîla (1948) with Aimard and the Philharmonia was as maddening as it was exciting. Hyper-sensual, loopily overblown, Turangalîla is prog rock in symphonic form: a crazy commotion of Poulenc-on-acid, plainsong and gamelan dreams, with the Ondes Martenot's electronic ululations standing for the obligatory guitar solo. Readers in Southend can hear it for themselves on Friday. As, I would imagine, will anyone within 20 miles of the Cliffs Pavilion.
Season continues (0871 663 2539) to 10 December