Messiaen: Eclairs sur l´Au-delà…

Vienna Philharmonic, Ingo Metzmacher; Kairos (0012742KAI)

11 November 2008 4 stars

MessiaenMore Messiaen, in a year already saturated with Messiaen, comes in the form of this new release by Kairos of the composer's last major work, Eclairs sur l´Au-delà… (completed in 1992).

It at first strikes one as perhaps an unusual release for a label hitherto concentrating only on the most contemporary of contemporary music. This is the case as Messiaen strangely now seems to have become an accepted item of furniture within the music establishment, comparable in status (at a stretch, but one getting closer) to a fellow French composer like Debussy, providing an avenue for concert programming relatively inoffensive to both ear and concertgoer sensibility. The present disc shows Kairos unbothered about musical trends then, continuing their usual high calibre of output by paying homage to one of the twentieth century's pre-eminent avant-garde composers, one whose example of self-integrity might be followed by most.

All the usual Messiaen tropes are here as you would expect to find them, executed in a way that appears a fitting celebration of a composer who was about to pass over to that great bird's nest in the sky (death). There's no compositional 'late style' anguish here: just joy in the presentation of those many innovations Messiaen had made absolutely his own in such an impressive and daunting manner over the course of his compositional career. As a personal conservatism you have to accept it as one pretty unerringly noble in outlook.

Ingo Metzmacher debuted with the Vienna Philharmonic with the work, and conducts them here, cutting a clear swathe through the orchestral folds of the music. The woodwind birdsong of the second and third movements is rendered sharp and bold. This gives way to the adagio strings of 'Les Élus Marques Du Sceau', sounding both lush and disconcerting. The music of that movement proceeds towards an end caught in suspended release, the highest note in the register of the strings arcing in reminisce of the last movement from Quatour pour le fin de temps. As a movement in the larger work it functionally bears something in the way of familial relation to the slow movements of Turangalîla and Des canyons aux etoiles, but is very much its own piece and one of the strongest in the work. Along with the slow last movement, 'Le Christ, Lumiere Du Paradis', it brings to mind the endemic strangeness of that mystical vision of the everyday that Messiaen sheds constant light and colour upon.

Colour is very much the watchword for Eclairs, its orchestration reaching a zenith of sophistication for Messiaen's corpus as a whole. Instrumentation is constantly linked to harmony in a dual consideration of the same expression. The instrumentation of a chord will appear to be chosen because of the timbre of the instruments in the different registers. Similarly the birdsong that occurs varies very much between the instruments that vehicle it, matched to the colour of the instrument. Another instance of such matching is the monophony of brass and percussion in the second-last movement, the two melding together to form one sound.

Successive movements are differentiated as much by instrumentation and timbre as thematic material and contrast of metre. This presents a more complex ethos of compositional contrast than that simple one of fast and slow movement. It also shows Messiaen's depth of thought when it comes to musical form – everything in the work operates in service to everything else, the whole executed in a high manner.

The quality of the recording conveying this is faultless, needless to say (it's Kairos). Every gesture, major or minor, stands out distinctly with a high quality of dimension and evocative clarity. The silence that frequently frames the music is a vivid canvas for it and reaches the ears unstained; the savagery of exotic birdsong in 'Plusieurs Oiseaux Des Arbres De Vie', along with the sustained triangle in the distance behind it, is severe to the hearing. There's not a lot else to say except that it is a pleasure to listen to.

There's the impression (or belief, or delusion) that a world is held up to witness over the course of the music, such as one of Borges's imaginary, invented worlds. Much action and movement figure in its hypothetical compass. Its history is probably written over the course of Messiaen's oeuvre. Its analysis or explanation would be less sought in this world wherein we receive it than in that one of its own time which creates its passage. All a load of nonsense; but that 'beyond' to which Messiaen refers in Eclairs sur l´Au-delà…, and that of which we are limit, has a similarly mute existence, and therein its power. Every listener is unwitting catalyst to its irrationality.

More down to earth: an illuminating recording of sparkling music.

By Liam Cagney