Monday, August 11, 2008

A Clear Beginning

My 2008 Edinburgh festival season began last night with a trip to the Usher Hall to hear the BBC SSO under Ilan Volkov perform Thomas Adès’s Tevot and Olivier Messiaen’s final work, Éclairs sur L'Au-delà.

Tevot, a recent composition, was described in the programme note (which you can find here) as “effectively Adès’s second symphony”; if that’s the case, at just over 20 minutes long, it’s a fiendishly compressed one. Of course, it’s certainly not the first symphony to consist of a single movement, but the pace of the musical development for the first third or so seemed relentless. The string writing often seemed to be in opposition to what the rest of the orchestra was doing and, just as I had begun to absorb what was happening, the music would shift direction, forcing my ear to retune itself again. However, the piece climaxes with an intensely beautiful, moving treatment of a simple rocking melodic figure that starts out on the strings, is passed along the woodwind and then developed by the orchestra as a whole before the string writing begins to separate itself slightly from the rest of the orchestra again.

I had half-listened to Tevot on the radio a couple of weeks ago, but this was the first time I’d heard any Adès properly. I was certainly left wanting to hear the piece again. I have every intention of investigating his previous work and following his future compositions.

The Messiaen was the piece I was really waiting for. I’ve blogged before about the significance of Messiaen’s music for me, and I’ve loved this work since I first heard it on Radio 3 in 2004 played by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Simon Rattle, whose recording I cannot recommend highly enough.

Éclairs sur L'Au-delà couldn’t be more different from Tevot in many respects. If the latter seemed a bit impetuous at times, Éclairs was more than a tonic: Messiaen certainly takes his time to explore his hope and vision of heaven in 11 movements ranging in length from less than two minutes to more than 11. You’ll be glad to hear I won’t attempt a blow-by-blow account of the piece or performance, but I will, of course, say something.

Éclairs is full of Messiaen’s characteristic tonal colour and rhythmic/harmonic invention. It opens with an incredible chorale for brass. Here—and in the the fifth and final movements, in which the strings take up the song—the almost static harmonies and melody the create an expansive musical space, a sound world that I almost feel able to walk about in. It’s difficult to describe the emotional tone and impact of these movements. Words such as majestic, sombre, rapt and ecstatic come to mind but none of them capture the profound sense of something beyond understanding, beyond tension and peace. I have to say, though, Volkov and BCC SSO didn’t quite put this across as powerfully as Rattle and the Berlin Phil.

There is, naturally with Messiaen, plenty birdsong throughout the piece. Here, the woodwind shone brightly, especially in the gloriously, joyfully chaotic ninth movement, “Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vieu”. But there was some tremendous playing throughout, notably from the flautists.

All in all, it was a fine performance. Bits of Éclairs are filling my head even now. That’s probably my live Messiaen fix for another year or so, so I’d better live off it as long as I can.

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