Royal Festival Hall, London
Between Pierre Boulez's pair of Barbican concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra celebrating Elliott Carter's ninetieth birthday, the Royal Festival Hall is mounting two programmes dominated by major works by Olivier Messiaen. With the Turangalila Symphony to come on Saturday, Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought Des Canyons Aux Etoiles to London on Monday as part of the "Towards the Millennium" series' commemoration of the 1970s.
This twelve-movement, hundred-minute work of 1971-4 is similarly prolix, not least in the way it incorporates a substantial part for solo piano (here by Paul Crossley) into a discourse which sifts its orchestral forces to produce some of Messiaen's most imaginative and bizarre sounds. It was preceded by Boulez' own Rituel (in memoriam Bruno Maderna), from 1974- 5.
In this work, deconstruction of the orchestra goes even further than Messiaen's, dividing its fifty-three players into eight groups of increasing size, each cued by a percussionist as much as co-ordinated by the conductor. The work's emotional power accumulates with the aid of some piercing, acidic timbres, with room for moments of surprising sweetness.
Regular repetition, both rhythmic and formal, helps mark Rituel as a new departure in its composer's output, though much is severe and sometimes disturbing in effect. It was good to hear the work again, especially in a performance as moving and tightly controlled as this one.
The audience's sizeable contingent from the Association of British Orchestras might have pondered the aptness of a programme devoted to compositions which challenge the symphony orchestra to self-destruction: a feature of the 1970s pursued with almost as much vigour as the 1960s. Messiaen's approach to structure enables the orchestra to create some wonderful moments: from the eerie russles of the sand machine and trumpet mouthpiece (without trumpet) to the exquisite, triadic radiances of strings and tuned percussion, to the savage dramas involving rhythmic unisons, shattering tam-tams and much else besides.
The horn takes an important solo role too, and Claire Briggs was as moving and effective as Crossley at the piano in conveying the range and power of Messiaen's evocations of nature and stellar space. And above all, of course, there are the birds: in nearly a hundred minutes, perhaps rather too many.
Up to movement seven, the stunning and cumulative "Bryce Canyon and the Red Orange Rocks", I kept pace, and faith, with the music's leisurely unfolding. The last forty-five minutes, though - separated by an awkward pause in which conductor and pianist furtively scuttled offstage for a quick break - were sometimes hard work. There's an overwhelming feeling in the final movements of everything coming round again, sometimes without much point to it.
Rattle's performance, however - which showed his experience in this music not only in precision and timbral brilliance but also in matters of pacing and phrasing - was an excellent demonstration of the chemistry that can be produced between a conductor of remarkable skill and passion and an orchestra brought to greatness by its long period of interaction with him.