A few decades ago, it was fashionable to scoff at Messiaen's music except for a few of his more speculative works of the 1950s. Now his whole output seems to have acquired a classic status, and the Albert Hall was almost full on Saturday for a programme consisting of the Turangalîla Symphony prefaced by four organ pieces.
The symphony – in no fewer than 10 movements – remains unsurpassed for its comprehensive range, its richness and sheer certainty. It makes a virtue of obvious processes and unbounded hedonism, so that Boulez's description of it as "bordello music" is beside the point. In any case, one wonders, would Boulez know what bordello music was like?
Saturday's performance was dedicated to the memory of Messiaen's sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod, for whom the ondes martenot part was written and who died a week earlier. Surely she would have admired the expressive fluency and confidence of the highly experienced Cynthia Millar.
But even more amazing was the brilliant conviction of the solo pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who brought off a terrific cadenza in the show-stopping fifth movement, "Joie du sang des Ètoiles", and was stunning again in the ornithological cadenza opening the seventh movement, which he brought to a close with a dazzling descent of alternating hands. Dispensing with a score, Aimard constantly acted out interplay with the orchestra, underlying the impact of his performance with energetic body language. Never, surely, has the piano part been so vividly communicated.
As for the National Youth Orchestra, young musicians these days seem to find nothing difficult, and the excitement of early performances a few decades ago, when players hung on by the skin of their teeth, has long since passed. Just occasionally the percussion at the back sounded fractionally behind, and of course there was none of that old French brashness in the brass.
In contrast, the most sensual movement, "Jardin du sommeil d'amour", with muted strings, was unashamedly loving, and Andrew Davis set good tempi, controlled but not too cautious in the dancing finale.
It was a pity that many would have been hearing Messiaen's organ music for the first time on such an unalluring instrument, without the shimmer or fire of a French romantic organ – or even the colour and singing quality of some English cathedral organs. (Admittedly, the monster is in need of restoration.) Nor does the Albert Hall do much to invest organ sound with a bloom and, despite all that's been said of its echo, there is little in the way of atmospheric reverberation.
Wayne Marshall punched out the final movement of Messe de la Pentecôte as if determined to wow us, and was noticeably surprised when he was rewarded with respectful silence. (That was soon broken.) The first movement of L'Ascension was dully registered and a bit too fast to be impressive. "Les Mages", from La nativité du Seigneur was definitely too fast to suggest the Magis' weary footsteps, but the fireworks of "Dieu parmi nous", the least characteristic piece of the Nativity cycle, were certainly flashy.
This Prom will be repeated on BBC Radio 3 on 7 January 2002Reuse content