On The Air

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The Independent Culture
THE BIRTHS on consecutive days of two giants of late-20th-century music prompted a celebration of unusual breadth on BBC Radio 3 last week. Messiaen is, of course, no longer with us, but on what would have been his 90th birthday we heard a whole evening of his music and that of related composers, interspersed with commentary and discussion.

Next day, it was the turn of the still tumultuously creative Elliott Carter, and a broadcast from this year's Edinburgh Festival filling the better part of the evening brought us his recent Clarinet Concerto, in the company of some new compositions by Manoury and Boulez.

After the pusillanimous programme-planning that has marked rather too much of Radio 3's output in recent times, this generous helping of thought- provoking and emotionally resonant music struck a blow for the cause of serious modernism. Hooray for adult contemporary music, as my wife put it.

Apart from the life-enhancing vision of their work, each of these two composers spearheaded an approach to composition that can now be seen to have been of considerable historic importance. The complexity of Carter's thought, from the Fifties onwards, is now central to the idea of the maximalism that marks one of the outer reaches of our age's music, while Messiaen, himself not averse to textural and thematic complexity, also pre-shadowed some of the prime elements of post-modernism. As we were reminded in one of the evening's discussion interludes, the mixture of ideas in his Turangalila symphony was considered an affront to musical taste when first heard here.

In fact, Messiaen posed considerable aesthetic problems during his middle years, and one of his most famous pupils, Pierre Boulez, made it quite clear that for all his admiration of the more constructivist aspect of his teacher's music, he could not take the uninhibited sweetness of much of the harmony - that very dichotomy which encouraged the post-moderns to mix styles and manners.

This was one among many somewhat perplexing aspects of Messiaen's art, and much light was thrown on them by friends and pupils during the course of the evening. The sharply alert yet intellectually generous George Benjamin recalled much of interest from his times in Messiaen's company, and his perceptions continually fascinated. The influence of Messiaen's organ- playing on his static block structures was mentioned, for each newly registered passage in an organ performance requires a halt for stop-pulling, initiating a structural habit. Then there was the musical influence of Debussy, which Benjamin heard not only in the other's colouristic harmony but also in those aspects of his style which are conspicuously non-Debussian. It was as if Messiaen was consciously trying to avoid Debussy's manner of thinking while admitting the profound effect of his harmonic world - a strangely compelling argument.

The use of chordal harmonies as precisely evocative objets sonores lies at a great distance from Carter's linear dialectic, yet that composer's new Clarinet Concerto, heard the following evening, celebrated the explosion of sunset colours in the south-western desert of the United States, an almost Messiaenic idea. Carter's response to that vast, quiet and comparatively featureless landscape yielded a very characteristic unfolding of conflicting counterpoints, nevertheless - at a first hearing a little dry, but on repetition increasingly revealing of desert mysteries.

In this same richly endowed programme we heard Manoury's splendidly inventive and texturally vital Fragments pour un Portrait, and Boulez's bewitching Sur Incises for three each of pianos, harps and percussion groups, something of a tintinnabulating homage to Stravinsky, Bartok and Messiaen.