Youth and experience together produce brilliant and heartfelt Messiaen

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
Olivier Messiaen: ÉCLAIRS SUR L’AU-DELÀ (Illuminations of the Beyond)

Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
The NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 8th July 2016

Elizabeth Kerr’s pre-concert talk, gratifyingly well-attended and enthusiastically received, placed its listeners right in the epicenter of things relating to Olivier Messiaen and his final completed work Éclairs sur l’au-delá (Illuminations of the Beyond), whose performance by the NZSO/NYO was to follow shortly after.

In a masterstroke of juxtapositioning she took us straightaway to an event that took place in January 1941, in a German prisoner-of war camp, Stalag 8A at Görlitz in Silesia, where the thirty-two-year-old Messiaen had been interned after being captured. It was here that he wrote a work for a quartet featuring violin, ‘cello, clarinet and piano whose first performance has long since passed into legend, the players all prison inmates, and with Messiaen himself as the pianist.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was thus first heard outdoors, and in the rain, on somewhat battered instruments  which were the only ones available, before an audience of about 400 people, other prisoners and their guards. Messiaen commented, later, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention.”

The idea of beginning this talk with reference to a quartet written by the same composer fifty years earlier than the work which was to be the last he completed was to show how consistently Messiaen applied certain fundamental elements of his creativity to his music. Religious belief, birdsong ornithology, colour/synthesia, modes, and a sense of timelessness were presented as integral aspects of his output, as evidenced by the salient characteristics of both the early Quartet and this last completed masterpiece for orchestra.

Elizabeth Kerr also talked about the composer’s music having a quality of “dazzlement”, describing its manifestation in terms of a kind of supernatural experience which, naturally enough, expressed religious faith. Messiaen himself described his own antithesis to this quality, an experience he underwent while composing Éclairs sur l’au-delá – “I imagined myself in front of a curtain, in darkness, apprehensive about what lay beyond….” The “dazzlement” of what the composer was able to imagine behind that curtain helped form the basis of the work we heard played by the two orchestras later that evening.

Conductor Zubin Mehta was to conduct the premiere of Éclairs in 1992 with the New York Philharmonic, but to his intense despair, Messiaen died before he could give Mehta any guidance as to the work’s performance – “The birds in this piece are self-explanatory – everything else is not!” lamented the conductor. However, the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, was able to supply some of the work’s origins of inspiration, not the least being various quotations from the Book of Revelations and the writings of both Thomas Aquinas and the Benedictine scholar Dom J. de Monleon, which prelude the individual movements. Loriod summed up for Mehta the work’s essentials in the following words (printed in the evening’s programme):

The work is inspired by the Holy Scriptures, and also by the stars (my husband was interested in the latest discoveries in astronomy), by the colours of precious stones in the Apocalypse, and by birds….this is a work of faith, a very rich work which comprises all the discoveries about rhythm, harmony and melody which my husband made in his whole life….

On the podium for this evening’s performance was one of Britain’s leading conductors, Sir Andrew Davis, lately of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Sir Andrew greeted us before the concert in the auditorium, expressing his pleasure at making his “New Zealand debut” with such a significant work. He spoke about his work in collaboration with Messiaen himself and with the aforementioned Yvonne Loriod (herself an accomplished pianist and celebrated interpreter of her husband’s piano music).  Sir Andrew talked about the work’s performing challenges, even taking us into his confidence regarding the difficulties of directing the orchestral players in the work’s aleatoric ninth movement (in which the players are directed to set their own tempi for their individual lines). He told us about what he called “one of the tricks of the trade” in keeping the “liberated” players under some kind of control – it was all very communicative and good-humoured!

These preambles completed, the two orchestras took the stage, firstly the NZSO, and then, filling the spaces next to the “normal” complement of players, the members of the 2016 National Youth Orchestra, all told a total of 128 players. From this vast ensemble came an incredible array of textures, colours and rhythmic patternings over the next hour, as conductor and players made their way through the composer’s infinite variety of expressive outpourings. Besides the massive sonorities we heard, what also became apparent was the music’s lightness of touch in places, the composer treating the gigantic resources at his disposal with both strength and delicacy, and handling the ebb and flow of contrasting sequences with great sensitivity.

The work began almost ritualistically, with solemn, stepwise brass chords whose progressions seemed at once predetermined and free-flowing, claustrophobic and outward-reaching – it was as if we were being invited to observe an imposing, solidly-built and slightly angular structure from different angles and with different illumination. This was the opening Apparition du Christ glorieux (Apparition of Christ in glory), the NZSO/NYO brasses producing granite-solidtones, multi-surfaced textures and infinitely mysterious ambiences.

The succeeding movements then took us through a cornucopia of light and colour, stillness and energy, strength and filigree impulse, each episode in its way expressing a manifestation of the composer’s vision of the world’s “beyond”, either through natural phenomena, such as birdsong or the play of light on surfaces and atmospheres, or by way of “seeing through” material constraints and into worlds further afield than this one.

In the predominantly birdsong movements we were able to enjoy the players’ skills in realising instrumental detailings of a phenomenally complex order, with winds and percussion expertly providing a central core of rhythmic and textural incident, augmented by strings and brasses with wonderful delicacy.

The third movement, L’Oiseau-lyre et la Ville-fiancée (The Lyre-bird and the Bridal City) made an astonishing effect with its angular volatilities from strings, winds and percussion, as did the following Les Elus marques du sceau (The Elect marked with the seal), which was a kind of kitchen utensil display with babbling birds in concert over ambient strings and little toccatas for percussion. As for Plusieurs oiseaux des arbors de Vie (Many birds of the trees of Life), this “chaos of delight” was superbly realized, the wind players enjoying their taste of aleatoric freedom with raucous gusto.

The movements in which birdsong vied with other instrumental groupings seemed to look outwards with a kind of barely-disguised longing, characterized by frequent upward-thrustings and frissons of agitation. The composer’s characterization of his star-sign Sagittarius (La Constellation du Sagittaire) depicted a kind of chorus of earth-bound disparates coming together and gesturing towards the heavens, while the more elaborate Les Étoiles et la Gloire (The Stars and Glory) more pro-actively and somewhat alarmingly brought together its disparate forces at the sequence’s end, resembling a kind of irresistible force of will, conductor and players bent upon goading the music to try and break through all earthly barriers towards light and enlightenment.

Even more confrontational was the penultimate Le Chemin de l’invisible (The Path of the Invisible) its strident declamations and ferocious energies recalling the composer’s “Turangalila” Symphony in places, the whole ensemble engaged in a rhythmic, colourful and cross-currented confrontation of impulses, culminating in some huge cosmos-shaking shouts of whole-hearted purpose.

That “purpose” seemed to me to be fulfilled by at least three of the movements, each of which struck me as purely transcendent, as depictions of what might be “intended” by our existence. The first, Demeurer dans l’amour (Abiding in love) featuring sweet sostenuto strings soaring and gliding above a sea of gently undulating string-tone. The musicians beautifully maintained the music’s serenities before going with its passionate intensification towards the end, so very stratospheric and unworldly for a few precious moments.

In complete contrast was the apocalyptic vision of Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes (The Seven Angels with seven trumpets), in its way overwhelming, with brass and percussion announcing a kind of “day of reckoning”, the quote from Revelations literally set to music – I thought, here, the effect more ritualistic and cumulative than instantly terrifying, compared with, say, the all-out percussive onslaughts in parts of both Berlioz’s and Verdi’s Requiem Masses. This seemed more like ritual than theatre, impressive in its implacability, and here played steadily and relentlessly to underline that quality.

And so we came with a kind of inevitability to the work’s concluding movement, a tremulously-expressed paean of ecstatic fulfillment sounded by the strings and wreathed with the gentle tintinabulations of triangles. Here, the effect was incredible, with that aforementioned sense of timelessness allowed to drift in around and over the entire listening-space, as if the entire cosmos was imbued with this music of the spheres, which the composer characterized as Le Christ, lumière du Paradis (Christ, Light of Paradise). We in the audience were held in thrall, as much by the sound as by the silences which followed for what seemed like a moment of blissful eternity……it was all beautifully realized by the conductor and players and contributed as much as what had gone before to the strength of acclamation which followed. From the beyond, Messiaen himself would, I’m sure, have beamed his approval.

One thought on “Youth and experience together produce brilliant and heartfelt Messiaen

  1. Angela Werren says:

    If Messiaen had been “interred” at Stalag 8A as you state in your second paragraph he would not have been able to write this work.

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