BBC Proms reviews

PCM1 & Prom 6: Messiaen @ Cadogan Hall and Royal Albert Hall, London

21 July 2008

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

There are not many solo instruments that can hold their own in a space as vast as the Royal Albert Hall but, when it’s the venue’s magnificent organ, this year having the dust blown off it a number of times, you can’t help but sit up and take notice. In Prom 6, the distinguished French organist Olivier Latry showed off the instrument’s capability as both a solo in Messaien’s L’Ascension and later as participant in Saint-Sans contrastingly popular Organ Symphony. But, despite the organ’s magnificence, it was the former’s orchestral meditation on death and resurrection that proved the revelation of the evening.

There’s an almost symphonic structure to Messiaen’s L’Ascension, written when he was in his early twenties and organist of La Trinité in Paris. The third movement is a high energy scherzo, steeped in the French toccata tradition, while the outer movements maintain a low-key intensity which pinpoint aspects of the Catholic faith difficult for an outsider to fathom. On first hearing, it’s a rather arid piece which, unlike the unmistakable spiritual depths of say Bach, doesn’t speak immediately to the uninitiated.

An altogether more dramatic and instantly accessible work is Messiaen’s Et exspecto ressurrectionem mortuorum of 30 years later, an extraordinary piece that defies any belief that Messaien’s orchestral works all sound the same (I confess to having been suffering from that misperception of late). From deep abyssal beginnings, almost Wagnerian in feel, the work explores aspects of death which shake you to the core and astonish in their invention and scope. The alternation of plaintive woodwind with eastern sounding percussion in the second movement, revolving around the concept of the death of death, is utterly magical.

Meditation is not something to be rushed and conductor Myung-Whun Chung was certainly in no hurry. Thankfully, the clapping between movements, that had a marring effect on some of the first night programme, was noticeably absent and the lengthy pauses here were respected with complete silence. If there were no other celebration of Messiaen during his centenary year, this magnificent performance would have been enough.

The French orchestra ended its programme with a lively and detailed account of the Symphony No. 3 by Saint-Sans. Silence might have been an appropriate follow-up to the Messiaen but this unabashedly popular work certainly provided a stirring send-off.

Following his appearance at Friday’s opening night, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a Cadogan Hall recital, the first Proms Chamber Music event of the season, that had something of the night about it. Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) was written just before the composer’s decline into the twilight of insanity and its neurosis, all falling away notes, was depicted by Aimard with agitated intensity, before an ending of resigned calm.

Elliott Carter’s 1980 Night Fantasies describes torments of a less ferocious but still anguished kind: the sort of heebie-jeebies that haunt the darkness in periods of insomnia. A lengthy piece for Carter, it starts to feel like a very long night after a while, with all the exasperation of having a clock cuckoo escape its hatch and bounce dementedly on its spring when all you want is oblivion.

The bird song that followed was of a more mellifluous kind, with Messaien’s L’alouette lulu from the Catalogue d’oiseaux and Aimard finished with Bartok’s charming Out of Doors suite, the fourth movement of which (“The Night’s Music”) evokes a cabaret of insects, birds and frogs before a frantic dance finale (The Chase) which lifted the tone of the whole recital, even as the soloist maintained a frantic intensity to the end.

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More on Olivier Latry
Olivier Latry review – thrills with Wagner (and others) at the Royal Festival Hall
Prom 21: Olivier Latry @ Royal Albert Hall, London
PCM1 & Prom 6: Messiaen @ Cadogan Hall and Royal Albert Hall, London