With the Royal Albert Hall cleared of Daleks and other extraterrestrials, following the morning’s Doctor Who Prom, the way was open to otherworldliness of an entirely different order.
Built in two seven-movement blocks (“septenaries”), Messaien’s La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ is a massive work, here employing the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, three choirs (Philharmonia Voices, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National Chorus of Wales) and a battery of instrumental soloists. Texts are drawn from the gospels, psalms, old testament and writings of St Thomas Aquinas, each exploring some aspect of Christ’s transformation into glorified form. There’s a timelessness about the work, as we move from one meditative moment to another, and 110 minutes of music have seemed longer before now. Nevertheless, the evening had its longueurs, perhaps due to Thierry Fischer’s steady, steady beat.
After a while, it all starts to sound the same, and the final movement feels superfluous after the resounding climax of the original ending in Movement 13. What follows increasingly resembles the death-wheeze of a giant harmonica player.
Messiaen gives prominent parts to the piano (here with Gerard Bouwhuis taking over at late notice from an indisposed Dénes Várjon), who acts almost completely alone, and cello (Sonia Wieder-Atherton), which really comes into its own with extended solo sections in the tenth movement (“The perfect adoption of sons”). Flute (Adam Walker) and clarinet (Julian Bliss) both get their moments in perhaps the most interesting part of the work, movement 5’s “How lovely are your tabernacles” which, with floating female voices, brings to mind the Ligeti of Lux Aeterna.
But it is percussion that is most prominent, less so the featured soloists on xylorimba, marimba and vibraphone than the dominance of gongs whose descending scales show the full range of their vibrating personalities. And where would we be without Messiaen’s beloved birdsong which, like the chorus’ plainchant, laces through the work, in one disguise or another?
The massive structure of La Transfiguration necessitates several pauses, firstly at the end of the First Septenary and later following the huge double blast of movement 9, perhaps the most indigestible chunk of the whole work. These intervals were disturbed and the attention dissipated by, not inappropriate clapping, coughing or mobile phone calls, but the sound of the BBC announcer, whose commentary leaked from his booth and could be heard all over the hall. As the conductor had to stand and wait for a green light before continuing, this was clearly a case of the radio listeners’ needs taking precedence over live attenders, adding to the dissatisfaction that a less than electric performance was already generating.