The Organ

The Music of Olivier Messiaen: The 'From the Canyons to the Stars Festival' and the BBC Proms - Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Royal Albert Hall, Cadogan Hall.

The Music of Olivier Messiaen: The 'From the Canyons to the Stars Festival' and the BBC Proms
Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Royal Albert Hall, Cadogan Hall

As the Southbank Centre's 'From the Canyons to the Stars' festival continued its summer hibernation with just three concerts, the BBC Proms stepped in to keep up the Messiaen 100th anniversary celebrations, most notably with a rare performance of his extraordinary opera, Saint Francis of Assisi. The three Southbank Festival concerts were all organ music, starting what I think may turn out to be of the key organ moments of the year-long festival, Dame Gillian Weir's eloquently musical performance of the Meditations sur le mystere de la Sainte Trinite (15 July, Westminster Abbey). Before the three plainchant-based Meditations, the relevant plainchant was sung by Lay Vicars from the Choir of Westminster Abbey, something not intended by Messiaen, particularly as each of the works starts with the unadorned plainchant. This sequence of nine movements was written in just two months in 1969, shortly after the completion of the similarly massive Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, reviewed below. The rather impenetrable opening movement is not representative of the remainder, although it does introduce the concept of Messiaen's 'Communicable Language' which he developed for this work and used to incorporate quotations from St Thomas Aquinas. Not willing to take the easy route of just allowing the alphabet to work its way up the keyboard, he constructed a complex system that included a motif for genitive, ablative and locative declensions and another for accusative and dative declensions together with a motif for the key verbs, 'to be' and 'to have'. Four of the movements (including the last) end with the distinctive cry of the Yellow-hammer – seven detached and one long note. These endings apparently stem from earlier improvised versions of the Meditations played during the re-opening of the Saint-Trinité organ in 1967 and were intended as pre-arranged signals to the preacher that the improvisations, interspersed within the sermon, had finished. The fifth movement opens with Messiaen's beloved Saint-Trinité 16' Positif Basson stop, used to such dramatic punctuating effect in the Offertoire of the earlier Messe de la Pentecôte. In many of Messiaen's later works, he harks back to his earlier musical language, in this case with a combination of the complex structure and birdsong of the organ works of the early 1950s with the lush and evocative sounds (including his famed 'added-sixth' chord and the gambe/celeste combination) of his well-known 1930 organ pieces. Meditation VI provides evocative reflections of other French composers – much of it could have been written by Tournemire. As with a number of Messiaen's organ works, the published score includes detailed registration instructions (including combination piston and crescendo pedal settings) and a graphic layout of Messiaen's own Saint Trinité organ.

James O'Donnell's recital (22 July, Westminster Abbey) sandwiched Messiaen between two of his contemporaries, Duruflé and Alain, with the former paying tribute to the latter in his Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain. The Messiaen pieces were the rather spiky and agitated Verset pour la fête de la Dédicace (written, despite the liturgical derivation, as a very secular test piece for the Paris Conservertoire in 1960, but not published until after Messiaen's death), and the well-known four-movement suite, L'Ascension, a work originally composed as a set of symphonic meditations for orchestra and, despite having one completely new movement (Transports de joie), not really ackowledged by Messiaen as a separate work, but merely a transcription. This was one of only two attempts by Messiaen at transcribing a work into a different genre to increase sales, and he never tried it again. Considering its popularity, organists may be surprised to find that Messiaen never really thought much of either version of L'Ascension – he found the transcrition a struggle and in his own star-rating of his work, gave both versions a resounding nil-points! Organists' own interpretations could benefit from hearing the orchestral version of the work (performed in the Proms on 6 August). The magestic first movement uses a wonderfully evocative battery of woodwing and brass, with 3 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and a tuba. The last movement, Prière du Christ montant vers son Père, uses the sensuously lush combination of twelve solo strings, the piece building towards a massive fff chord. James O'Donnell was very respectful to Messiaen's published text, my only concern being that, during the first movement, the critical initial movement of the swell pedal was not quite subtle enough, allowing a burst of volume rather than a uniformly graded crescendo.

Westminster Cathedral hosted an outstanding recital by John Scott of works with a Pentacostal theme by de Grigny, Alain and Duruflé (three composers whose work was sadly curtailed, two by early death and the third by an extraordinary obsession with perfection) together with Messiaen's 1950 Messe de la Pentecôte (27 Aug). The Messe was originally intended to have been part of a single work with what became the Livre d'Orgue (1951). There had been an eleven year gap since his previous organ work - Les Corps Glorieux (1939). Although starting with the Quatuor pour la fin du temps written in a prisoner of war camp (the first work to include birdsong, notwithstanding the bleak surrounding), the 1940s was dominated by works for solo piano and the Tristan and Isolde trilogy of Harawi (1945), Turangalîla-symphonie (1948) and Cinq Rechants (1949). This was arguably one of Messiaen's most emotionally turbulent decades with the declining health of his wife and the increasing affection between Messiaen and his young pianist pupil, Yvonne Loriod, who joined his class shortly after his return from captivity in 1942. The return to the organ bought about a change in Messiaen's musical language, with the Messe de la Pentecôte and the Livre d'Orgue demonstrating a move towards much greater complexity. Both works expose one of many enigmas in Messiaen's organ works – the conflict between his contention that they are based on improvisations, and the extraordinary mathematical complexities of some of the music. For example, could anybody really improvise a work where the first chord of the middle voice has 23 semiquavers, the second 22 semiquavers and so on down to a single semiquaver, set against a bass line that starts with a note 4 semiquavers long, and then increases up 25 semiquavers duration, the whole overlain by birdsong (as in the concluding Sortie)? Or (as in the Offertoire), passages where the three staves are each based on simultaneous permutations ('interversions') of the five 'durées chromatique' whose length in semiquavers make up the different arrangements of 1 2 3 4 5 – with 30 such permutations presented three at a time without repeating any of them? As a starter, the passage opens with 1 2 3 4 5 semiquavers in the upper stave, 5 4 1 2 3 in the middle and 3 5 1 2 4 in the pedal. At the same time, the middle stave has a four bar sequence of rising chords, which then moves back down again in mirror image. It makes my brain ache to even look at the score, let alone contemplate improvising such mathematical complexity. The five movements reflect the key moments in the French Catholic liturgy when the organ plays, starting with the Entrée, which Messiaen subtitles Les langues de feu (tongues of fire), the Offertoire (Les choses visibles et invisibles - Things visible and invisible), which includes Messiaen's favourite Trinité organ stop, the Positif Basson 16' that punctuates the text and which Messiaen described as being 'very powerful, with an extraordinarily deep sound' and, towards the end (as in the Communion), a combination of two of Messiaen's favourite musical devices, drops of water and birdsong, with staccato passage sounding two octaves above its legato unison set against quiet string chords. The Consécration (Le don de sagesse - The gift of wisdom) intersperses a plainchant-like theme amongst passages for solo pedal 4' Clarion (as heard in the Entrée) set against piquant chords on three manuals. The Communion (Les oiseaux et les sources - The birds and the waters) includes lush chordal quotations from the Turangalîla-symphonie and concludes with arpeggio across the entire keyboard ending in a high chord on a 1' stop heard against the remote rumble of a pedal 32'. The blustery Sortie (Le vent de l'Esprit - The wind of the Spirit) includes the complex passage of durés chromatiques described above, but is otherwise a blistering depiction of the Pentacostal wind.

Messiaen at the BBC Proms

The BBC Proms made much of the Messiaen celebrations, starting with Olivier Latry's masterly performance of L'Ascension (Royal Albert Hall, 21 July). Rather than slavishly following Messiaen's registration instructions, Latry reinterpreted the sound of the work to suit the organ, producing some glorious sounds in the process. This was an extremely well thought out performance with some insightful interpretations, not least the final chord of the Prière du Christ montant vers son Père which Latry not only held for the required length (which is something very few organists do – it is very long), but also added his own extremely effective decrescendo, allowing the sound to fold itself into the bowels of the organ. The original version for orchestra, as described above, was performed on 6 August. Latry also proved to be a persuasive soloist in the concluding Saint-Saëns 'Organ Symphony'. He deserved the massive applause. This concert also included Messiaen's 1964 tribute to the dead of two world wars, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, with Myung-Whun Chung, directing the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Not surprisingly, this sounded far more spectacular in the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall than the rather clinical acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as reviewed in the first of these Messiaen articles. While composing this work, Messiaen surrounded himself with images of simple grandeur, including the stepped pyramids of Mexico, Egyptian statues and temples, and Romanesque and Gothic churches together with his own view of the Alps from the window of his summer retreat where most of his composition work was done. He saw this work being performed in “vast spaces: churches, cathedrals, and even out of doors and on high mountains”. The official premiere was in Chartres Cathedral after an first performance in the multi-coloured splendour of Sainte-Chapelle. Myung-Whun Chung skillfully grasped the opportunity offered by the acoustic and encouraged an expansive and dramatic performance from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. The long silences between movements that Messiaen specified in the score were well handled – slightly shorter than Messiaen intended, but without the dimming of the lights that seemed a bit contrived in the QEH concert.

Shortly after Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, Messiaen started work on an even more gigantic composition, the fourteen-movement and 100 minute long oratorio, La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (completed in 1969). It was immediately after the completion of this work that Messiaen composed the third of the massive-scale works of the 1960s, the Meditations sur le mystere de la Sainte Trinite for organ, discussed above. La Transfiguration was the sole work in the Prom on 27 July with Thierry Fischer conducting an enormous choir (combining the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales) and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Messiaen asked for a choir of 100, which this performance more than doubled. By this time Messiaen was hailed as the most important living French composer, and his new compositions were eagerly awaited. Despite, or perhaps because of, this expectation, Messiaen struggled over the production of this work more than any other, with frequent and embarrassing changes of the timetable for the much delayed first performance. The fourteen movements are divided into two 'septenaries', the second twice as long as the first. Each has a broadly similar musical structure, with two chanted Gospel settings and a concluding chorales. Key solo parts for the piano and cello (the closest Messiaen got to fulfilling Rostropovich's request for a cello concerto) combine with flute and clarinet solos and an energetic battery of solo xylorimba, vibraphone and marimba, all adding cadenzas and commentary to the sung texts. Thierry Fischer controlled this vast work carefully, albeit at some cost to his personal heating system. The must be one of the hardest choir works ever, the extraordinarily loud and slow final 'Chorale or the light of glory' straining breath control to the limit. One irritation was the several long pauses while the Radio 3 announcer did his bit – his murmuring was audible throughout the hall, but not the words. It is their show, I suppose, but this does no service to the music or the paying audience and, more critically, it disrupted the essential flow of this monumental work, making it even harder to listen to than it already is. I look forward to the Southbank performance later in the year.

In the late-night Prom on 10 August, James O'Donnell performed the Messe de la Pentecôte interspersed with Manchicourt's Missa Veni Creator Spiritus sung, with surprising forcefulness, by the BBC Singers, under the encouragement of Andrew Carwood – a huge contrast in musical styles. O'Donnell's well controlled playing made very effective use of the colours of the Albert Hall organ - I am sure Messiaen would have approved of the wonderfully grumbly RAH equivalent of the Positif Basson 16' that punctuates the text during the Offertoire, and the evocative ending of the Communion, a very quiet contrast between the highest and lowest notes of the organ.

Jennifer Bate's Sunday afternoon performance of Apparition de l'église éternelle and La Nativité du Seigneur (17 Aug) attracted an embarrassingly small audience. In the first work the “enormous and granite-like” crescendo (Messiaen's words) was interrupted by some breaks in the musical flow and a rather jerky use of the swell pedal. An eager young BBC presenter bounced up to the organ console for a toe-cringing chat with Bate before La Nativité du Seigneur. I wouldn't be surprised if this put her off her stride, as the following performance was not, I think, her best. Jennifer Bate told listeners that, when Messiaen “let me have all his organ concerts”, she felt she ought to play his works the way he does, so carefully followed his own score markings. But however much her registrations might have appeared correct on the page, they didn't sound convincing on this particular organ. Having heard Olivier Latry present this work quite brilliantly in Westminster Abbey earlier in the year, and also his spectacular performance of L'Ascension, earlier in the Proms, I wondered if there is an important difference between 'playing' Messiaen's music, and 'performing' it.

The 19 August Prom included Messiaen's last work, Concert à Quatre. This was left unfinished at his death and was complete by his wife, Yvonne Loriod, and his English student, the composer George Benjamin. This concerto for four soloists (piano, oboe, flute and cello) is a homage to Mozart, Rameau and Scarlatti. It was set within a concert of electro-acoustic music by Harvey and Varèse. The second movement is an ornamented transcription of the 1935 Vocalise, originally intended as a study for singers – it includes a most elegaic melody set against simple piano accompaniement in a recognisable A major key.

Sir Simon Rattle is one of the Prommer's darlings, so there was the predictable roar as came on stage to direct his Berliner Philharmoniker (2 Sept) for the Turangalîla Symphony, with soloists Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) and Tristan Murail (ondes martenot). Aimard also played in the performance in the Royal Festival Hall in February that I reviewed in a previous issue. This is the central work of the trilogy based on the Tristan und Isolde legend, so it was appropriate that the short first half was devoted to Wagner's Prelude and 'Liebestod' from 'Tristan und Isolde', a work ideally suited to the polished playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle coaxed them into one of the quietest and slowest of starts imaginable, and careful controlled the swelling emotion of what was clearly intended as some sort of musical foreplay to Turangalîla. Even if some still cringe with embarassment at the lush eroticism of Turangalîla, this extraordinary work has now joined the mainstream orchestral repertoire, with Simon Rattle as one of the key promoters. It is the sort of work that one might stereotypically assume the Berliners would shy away from, but it says much for Rattle's enthusiasm (and their professionalism) that he lifted them into the lush French world as to Le manoir born. As with the Wagner, Rattle explored the extremes of musical sound in a performance that did much to retain this amazing work in its rightful position as one of the key works of the 20th century, alongside Stavinsky's 'Rite of Spring', a work that also took many decades to be understood and, incidentally, a work that Messiaen analysed frequently in his composition classes. The Tristan trilogy was completed by a late night Prom (1 Sept) with the BBC Singers under their music director David Hill singing Cinq rechants (appropriately, for a work inspired by Indian rhythms, in a concert that also included sitar ragas), and the lunchtime Prom on 11 August at the Cadogan Hall, which featured soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper, piano, repeating the extraordinary performance of Harawi, given earlier in the year during the Southbank festival.

The highlight of The Proms Messiaen celebrations must be the performance of his opera Saint Francis of Assisi on 7 September by soloists and chorus of The Netherlands Opera with The Hague Philharmonic, directed by an impressive Ingo Metzmacher in a concert performance (with some cast changes) of the fully-staged Amsterdam production. Saint Francis is no more an opera than the Turangalîla Symphony is a symphony - Messiaen referred to it as a “spectacular”, rather than an opera. It is made up of eight seemingly unconnected 'scenes', divided into three Acts, to a text by Messiaen himself. Little of the life of St Francis is included, although it would be eminently operatic. There is no love interest and no St Clare (the only female in the cast sings the white-trousered role of the Angel, referred to as 'he' throughout) and no real development of individual characters. The only bit of humour is the cameo role of Brother Elias who doesn't realise that it is the Angel knocking on the door of the monastery and gets very cross, giving Messiaen the opportunity to compose some delightful grumpy monk music. I was also tickled by the exchange between Francis and the Leper – “Offer thy pain as a penitence, my son” – “Penitence! Penitence! First take away my pustules, and then I will do penitence!”. It was written between 1975 and 1983, and it seems likely that Messiaen assumed that this would be the last work he would ever write. Like many of his late works, it is a synthesis of his musical thinking. The structure is made a great deal clearer by the used of repetition and recognisable blocks of sound, possibly supporting Boulez contention that “Messiaen doesn't so much compose, as juxtapose”. For example, the opening contrast between the metallic rattle of the gamelan-like combination of xylophone, xylorimba, marimba and bells producing a cacophony of bird song, the scurrying woodwind and the lush halo of string sounds that envelope St Francis's words and whenever the words la joie parfaite appear – the 'perfect joy' that is the theme of the first of the eight scenes. Like Wagner, whose work he admired, he allocates a range of leitmotifs (and specific bird songs) to the various protagonists. The orchestration (which apparently took Messiaen a great deal longer to achieve than the actual composition) is expansive, with some wonderful sounds emanating from the percussion and the lower reaches of the woodwind, brass (including a contrabass tuba that, at one point, is asked to play with a bassoon reed) and the three Ondes Martinot (two in balcony boxes to either side of the stage). Scene Six is the extraordinary, if rather contrived, 'Sermon to the Birds' with Messiaen using the device of St Frances pointing out to his fellow Brothers all the birds he can see, along with a few that he sees in a dream on “an island of the seas beyond the seas!”. This gives Messiaen the chance to include birds from a Pacific island as far away from Assisi as it is possible to get, but which Messiaen insisted on visiting as part of his preparations for St Francis - to the amazement of his wife who accompanied him on the arduous journey. One of the key moments is St Francis's address to the birds, sandwiched between a 'Little Concert' and a 'Grand Concert' of birds, and sung with enormous conviction by Rod Gilfry. These concerts of birds include passages where the conductor merely sets the instrumentalists off, to play in their own time and rhythm. Messiaen's stage directions ask for the scene to end with projections of birds flying off to the four cardinal points to form a giant cross. Another critical, and more musically satisfying, scene is the fifth – The Angel Musician, in which The Angel (an outstanding performance by soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, sung from the organ console gallery) first sings of “music that suspends life from the ladders of heaven” and then plays his viol to St Francis (who is rendered unconscious – “overwhelmed, dumfounded by … that heavenly music”) in one of Messiaen's most mesmerising musical moments, the Ondes Martinot weaving a sinuous line above shimmering strings. The final two scenes represent The Stigmata and Francis's Death and a New Life. The first has the biggest chorus contribution, singing as the voice of God, building to a series of shouts at C'est Moi, je suis l'Alpha et l'Oméga! and finishing with a dramatic series of hammer blows as Francis receives the Stigmata. Scene Eight starts with Francis's long litany of farewells followed by his welcoming “out sister bodily Death” to the low growls of the Ondes Martinots and The Angel's promise that “Today, in a few moments, thou wilt hear the music of the invisible … and thou wilt hear it for ever…”. The work concludes with an enormous crescendo from the chorus and full orchestra and the words “Power, Glory and Joy!!!”, accompanied by an intense light that Messiaen proposed should become “blinding and unbearable” as the curtain falls. Although billed as a concert performance, there was enough staging for me. Simple coordinated clothing, a few benches and a cross - and singers coming and going as the text demands, with interaction between them. That is really all this work needs, despite Messiaen's complicated staging instructions, full of colour imagery. The only noticeable staging missing was the dance of the cured Leper, although I would have liked the Leper to have come on stage in the last scene when the score indicates that he should stand, silently, beside the Angel. Although there were a few lightening effects, more could easily have been done – but I could have done without the lightening flashes that accompanied the Angel knocking. Credit must go to the enormous stamina and sheer musical ability of all the performers. If you have managed to read this far, I really do hope that you managed to hear this performance, if not live or off-air, then via BBC iPlayer during the following week. Considering the importance of this performance, the paucity of the audience numbers were frankly an embarrassment to the British concert-going public.

The Proms contribution is now complete, but the Southbank Festival, 'From the Canyons to the Stars', continues until its final concert on Messiaen's birth day in December and will be the subject of future reviews in The Organ.