Messiaen: La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur JÚsus-Christ

Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices, BBC Symphony Chorus/Nagano

Royal Festival Hall, 21 October 2008 3 stars

Kent NaganoThe mass onstage at the Royal Festival Hall had come together to perform one of Messiaen's largest-scale works, La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. The formidable job of conducting them went to the seasoned and able Kent Nagano. The Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices were expanded on the night by the presence of the BBC Symphony Chorus and seven solo players, among whom was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of the From the Canyons to the Stars festival which has run over the last year.

Tonight's concert was a big production and a fitting undertaking for one of the last orchestral programs of the festival, which has taken place (very successfully) in honour of Messiaen's centenary. The dimensions called for in its performance have made La Transfiguration one of the less-frequently heard major works of the French composer. This made tonight a good chance to hear its voluminous proportions resound throughout a large arena.

The work is written in fourteen parts, divided into two sections of seven, and is in the form of a meditation on a significant and vividly related event in the life of Christ. The event of the transfiguration is one that gives the composer ample opportunity to engage in the sort of painting with colour that he was so adept at; one of the themes of the transfiguration explored here is God's holy light. The dynamic effect of the work is much more restrained than that of, for example, Turangalîla or Des Canyons aux Etoiles, as befits the sacred character of the subject.

The piece was written during the second half of the sixties in what was something of a transitional period for Messiaen stylistically, coming after the experiment of Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum and its sombre mood and expanded deep percussion.That sombreness was heard here from the first movement, the work opening to the hushed sound of resonating tuned percussion with strikes on gongs, tubular bells and woodblock setting a serious and ceremonial atmosphere that continued throughout the work, giving a foundation. The first movement, Récit évangélique, periodically recurs as a movement throughout the work and gives formal definition in the same way as the recurring movements of Turangalîla. The chorus entered after the percussion introduction singing a monophonic plainchant, albeit one described by the expanded modal contours of Messiaen's distinctive melodic approach. The choir were strong here although the part isn't especially challenging. The next movement saw them alternate with the orchestra before both came together at its close.

Of the soloists, Aimard on piano and Karen Stephenson on cello in particular stood out, although the cello was drowned out sometimes by the orchestral and choral forces. This was a problem that also hampered the solo clarinet and flute parts of Mark Van De Wiel and Kenneth Smith respectively, and left one with a slightly unsatisfied feeling regarding what one might expect from such a major piece featuring seven virtuoso soloists and possible solo flourishes. Such solo standout points were limited on the night by the nature of the parts being played, the work being an unostentatious one in fashion. But the auditory balance in the hall also played against its possibility, choir and orchestra rendering cello and wind soloists sometimes inaudible.

The sixth movement in particular, which features the simultaneous playing of all the soloists, sounded cluttered and ill defined. Aimard's birdsong interjections were quite frequent along with those of David Corkhill, Kevin Hathway and Peter Fry on marimba, xylorimba and vibraphone. The French pianist was stern and humourless throughout and had no difficulty with the piano part, a brilliant one as is usual with Messiaen's strange birdsong renderings. The score doesn't produce any extended solos though such as those found in Des Canyons, which was a little missed by this listener.

Pierre-Laurent AimardNagano did a good job and was animated throughout. Before each of the Récits he commanded a silence from his players of up to a minute, maintaining in the awaiting hall the serious mood of the music. Something about the performance seemed lacklustre though, the evening never really lighting up. Fireworks admittedly aren't the aim of the music but some aspects of the performance were sluggish. In particular, the choir's entries were noticeably bad in the two last movements. If any climax was to come it should have been there. Instead the music didn't rise above the level it had maintained up until then, which wasn't particularly bad but which may have called for a kick in the backside coming towards the end of the concert.

The theme of transfiguration by light is well conveyed by the fragmented and episodic blocks of the music's form, which brings to mind the illuminated pages of a sacred manuscript, antiquated and austere while suggesting a delirious and iridescent play that is just about restrained by the force of gravitas. Although not everyone will find the Christian theme to their taste, it is precisely that theme that lights up the music which has no ground to exist outside of it. Exegetic texts by Thomas Aquinas may not seem like the most likely settings for an epic work but here they work, intoned in Latin along with extracts from the gospels. At times, when the choir were chanting out their words in chorale manner, the impression came across of hearing the national anthem of an extremely bizarre country being sung, a country lasting just the duration of the song. Which I suppose is a testament to Messiaen's strength of vision.

By Liam Cagney

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