The Royal Albert Hall was host on Monday night to a visit from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under their Musical Director Myung-Whun Chung, for an evening of unevenly matched but uniformly well performed French music written for various permutations of organ and orchestra.
A typical early work by Messiaen, L'Ascension (in its solo organ version), was followed by the same composer's unusually severe monument Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The programme was completed by Saint-Saëns overblown though inventively constructed 'Organ' Symphony. The uniting agent behind the programme was of course that the two outer works contain parts for organ, but the differences of idea, inspiration and realisation so clearly shown between the two works suggest that a more creative approach to programming might have resulted in a much more satisfying and cohesive concert.
As it was, the audience was given the opportunity to enjoy a Prom of two very distinct halves. The opening L'Ascension, performed capably and creatively by Olivier Latry, was enticingly elusive. Latry displayed on the one hand his fine grasp of the essentially time-driven power of the vibrant sustained fanfares that recur throughout the first movement, and on the other his exceptional mastery of the intricate toccata-like patterning of the third. He effortlessly ushered forth the programmatic impetus behind the work in his realisation of the many ascents that govern the work-the general key scheme for instance, or the upward-striving of the thematic groups of the two outer movements- and his subtle contrasts in tone and thrust between the manuals and the pedals brought great force to his reading of the third movement. The final ascent to an enigmatic discord at the end of the work was typical in the warmth and power of its sound of that of the organ throughout Latry's performance of this work. It was a pleasure to experience the Hall's stentorian organ at full stretch in Messiaen's highly charged religious music.
The performance of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum that followed L'Ascension was true to the spirit of the music in that it emphasised austerity, ritual, and monumentality more than any other qualities. The work, written for the Varése-like (and the harshness of the piece is likewise an echo of that earlier composer's music) ensemble of brass, wind and percussion, is a grand, apocalyptic consideration of death and resurrection, common themes in Messiaen's programmatic music. It is in five movements that chart through their course (as indicated by the Biblical epigraphs that serve as titles for each movement) a plea on behalf, and eventual realisation of the resurrection in Paradise, of the dead. The sublime inclusivity of this plea is typical of the composer, and his music matches in power and profile the grandeur of its inspiration.
Myung-Whun Chung brought a great measure and sense of control to the performance, and his climaxes were always very deliberate, and prodigious. The ensemble was fairly strong throughout, with the opening brass theme being particularly forceful at each return. The strong playing from each of the wind players in their many solos in the second movement was not enough to dispel the overwhelmingly strict rigour of the construction, but the loose sense of abandon and frenzy wrought by the cymbal and gong players in the utterly massive climaxes in the third movement proved a potent symbol of the voice of Christ, which they were intended to represent. The foursquare patter of the final movement brought the work to a driving conclusion, and the communion of the resurrected that was symbolised at this point was shown to be one of exotic colour and circular form. There were some local deficiencies of ensemble throughout the work – for example some of the thrusting downbeats in the finale, shared by the tubular bells and the small set of hanging gongs, were noticeably ragged in realisation (though the loss of the smallest gong owing to the percussionist's overbearing enthusiasm toward the end actually added to the transcendent effect of the climax) – but overall the conductor brought a keen sensitivity to the ritual power and structuring of the work. The players showed themselves to be gifted, and attuned to the need for a sense of inevitability and relentlessness that should always attend a performance of this cyclically driven composer.
The second half of Prom 6 was an entirely different affair in terms of musical text, though the same measure of control, intelligence, and occasional lapses of ensemble could be detected in the performance of Saint-Saëns' booming work. As I have said the symphony is very well crafted, based as most of its thematic material is on the initial themes heard in the introduction, and the conductor showed himself keenly aware of this, pushing the orchestra in different directions with each new permutation of the germ, and finally drawing a thunderous climax that showed how exacting he had been in his management of the forward momentum of the work. The scurrying theme of the scherzo was particularly well realised, and credit too should be given for the graceful and flowing energy the ensemble brought to the slow movement.
The organ combined well with the power of the orchestra, always supporting their push towards the inevitable climax, and it sounded at times a sympathetic support to for example the plucked strings at the return of the main theme in the slow movement. However despite these qualities, it all seemed a tad barren after the Messiaen. The inspiration behind the work – that of total integration and evolution of a simple intial idea – can certainly be said to be sound, but the graceless bombast and conservative material the composer employs prove his work to be somewhat empty. A lot of noise signifying nothing, if you will. The conductor at least showed his sensitivity to the deficiencies of the material by instilling nuance wherever he could. The overarching sense of purpose he brought to the performance certainly merited the warm reception extended at its conclusion. His choice of the overture to Carmen as an encore, which was played with total abandon by a now effervescent orchestra, at least crowned the evening with a suitably lurid end that seemed a logical conclusion to the dynamic progression chosen for the concert.