Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Ensemble intercontemporain/Boulez @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

10 December 2008

It may have been chance that two such iconic 20th Century composers, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter, were born just one day apart in 1908.

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

But the result was that a century later audiences could attend their centenary concerts on consecutive nights at the Festival Hall.

Given such a momentous anniversary, however, the choice of programming for the Messiaen concert, also the last in this year’s series, The Music of Olivier Messiaen: From the Canyons to the Stars, celebrating his centenary, was surprising.

When one of his great ‘warhorses’ would have seemed the obvious choice for such a swansong, initially it felt anticlimactic to be handed two of his relatively obscure compositions. Both, however, were exceptional in their own right, and brilliantly played by the Ensemble intercontemporain under the baton of Pierre Boulez.

Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cit celeste of 1963 combined birdsong with ethereal sounding refrains played by cowbells and gongs. With the orchestra consisting of piano (played by Sebastien Vichard), percussion, brass, clarinets, but no strings, the performance captured perfectly Messiaen’s intentions, by emphasising the messages of hope and redemption that lay amidst its discordant notes.

Featuring twenty-seven players, Sept Haikai was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Japan in 1962. Its seven sections took us from the statues that guarded the entrance to Buddhist temples, through parks, dramatic landscapes and birdsong, before returning us to the guardian gods.

The Yamanaka cadenza saw the orchestra’s playing interspersed with cadenzas for solo piano, played so superbly by Pierre-Laurent Aimard that the discordant notes sounded surprisingly lyrical. Another highlight was the Gagaku inspired by the hichiriki, a Japanese instrument that Messiaen described as ‘extremely disagreeable and at the same time expressive’.

Finally, the audience were treated to Boulez’s sur Incises which saw three pianos, three harps and three percussion instruments producing music full of speed and colour. With the conductor (for obvious reasons) working so closely to the composer’s original intentions, I found it hard to picture a performance of this piece ever being more definitive.

But I still felt that, on such an auspicious day, more attention should have been paid to Messiaen the man. True, his music speaks for him, but not a single word of tribute was uttered from the podium, which would have greatly enhanced the sense of occasion. This, however, should not detract from the fact that the concert featured three amazing pieces, the performances of which could hardly have been bettered.

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