Review of the Messiaen Anniversary year

Those who enjoy Olivier Messiaen’s music have had a very enjoyable year of concert going in London in 2008.

The centenary of the composer’s birth has been marked by a thorough and extensive retrospective in London, which has been one of the dominant forces of the musical year.

Messiaen’s roles as performer and teacher as well as composer have rightly been noted. There have been many noteworthy performances, but I am taking this opportunity to look back and pick out my personal favourites.

BBC Proms, August 2008

The greatest revelation, and one of the greatest delights for me was George Benjamin’s Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It opened with the orchestral version of L’Ascension, complementing the earlier performance of the organ version of that work at Westminster Abbey (which was comprised within the church service for that Day). This was a very smooth and polished performance and I was most impressed with it. There was also an early work (his first significant adult composition) from the conductor himself; and items of programming which despite being extremely well known, Benjamin brought a delightful freshness of touch to. He combines great precision with lightness and delicacy of touch and is a very enjoyable conductor.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, October 2008

After this, I was eager to see more of Benjamin, and he features in another of my selections the UK Premiere of Gerard Grisey’s Espaces Acoustiques, with the London Sinfonietta and a very distinguished performance from Paul Silverthorne in the pivotal solo viola part.

This music has a distinctive and almost meditative quality, interacting with the rhythms of the listener’s body, akin to their breathing. This quality serves to refresh the mind and the senses, meaning that one can leave an hour or more of what might be expected to be difficult avant garde music feeling energized and enlivened. It can truly be described as therapeutic.

Benjamin again excelled as did the musicians of the London Sinfonietta his precision being exactly what was needed here. It also brought a strong sense of occasion that the UK premiere was conducted by a close friend of the work’s composer, both of them taught by Messiaen. Its inclusion in this commemorative cycle was one of a number of initiatives which paid homage to Messiaen’s very significant role as a teacher as well as as composer and as performer a contribution to the musical life of the twentieth century which has reached both far and wide.

The London Oratory, October 2008

Although I have selected the orchestral rather than the organ version of L’Ascension partly because personally I prefer it, and partly because as it is more rarely performed it is more of a treat for the listener to have the opportunity to hear this live there has been a great deal of fine organ music as one would expect from a commemoration of Messiaen – who was both a great organist himself and who wrote extensively for this instrument.

I would especially highlight the excellent organ recital series held on Monday evenings of the month of October at the Brompton Oratory. In particular, Patrick Russill’s recital on 20 October for its beauty, passion and variety. Also another very fine performance which concluded the series, this time by David Titterington, who played movements from the Livre du Saint Sacrament, a work on which he is a noted authority, and which features charming musical replications of the songs of desert birds.

In these evenings, music written for the church was performed without liturgy but in a spiritual and respectful atmosphere, widening its appeal but without diminishing its numen. Throughout this series of Monday evening recitals, the beautiful church has been lit with candles and fragranced with incense. This created serenity in the midst of the capital’s weekday bustle and an insight into the spiritual as well as the musical beauty of the French organ tradition.

The Oratory is in my personal opinion a venue better suited to the French organ tradition including Messiaen’s own music – than any of the other venues in London used in the retrospective, and that influences my choice to some extent. The recitals there have been a sheer delight.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, February 2008

One of my other choices is also for the keyboard, this time for the piano rather than the organ: Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus. Unlike several of my selections, it was very early in the commemorative festival in February. Aimard is a considerable authority on this work, not only having learned it form the composer’s second wife but also having made an acclaimed recording. Excellent though that recording remains, it was made when he was younger and this performance showed him at the height of his mature powers as a pianist. It was notable how many musicians and composers were in the audience and this star-studded evening contributed to launching the festival to the strong start from which it went on only to prosper still further.

Royal Festival Hall, October 2008

My final selection also includes Aimard at the piano. At the South Bank, there was a fantastic performance of La Transfiguration conducted by Kent Nagano in October. This is a long and intense work, performed without any break and is demanding for both players and audience. Yet here attention was rapt throughout by the quality of the playing, bringing out the work’s dramatic and sensual as well as religious sensibilities.

There has been an excellent and varied showcasing of Messiaen’s work year in London, flourishing through the year to a very fruitful autumn. It has included presentation of his organ works in a way which is both informative and enjoyable, with top class soloists performing in a beautiful and contextually appropriate setting, in addition to fearless and fine works for large orchestral ensemble. Pierre-Laurent is to be congratulated warmly both in his role as the curator of this large and diverse festival and in his own contribution as a performer with an especial insight into this composer’s work.

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