Thursday, 11 December 2008

Not forgetting Messiaen



You probably thought I already had (forgotten Messiaen, that is), since I made no mention on what would have been our sainted Frenchman's 100th birthday. To be honest, I went along to the Wigmore Hall last night not to pay tribute, but to hear Alban Gerhardt, that most musicianly and collegial of cellists with whom I'd conversed so happily before his Prom Prokofiev, in the great company of his regular pianist, Steven Osborne, the astounding Kari Kriikku - whose performance of the Lindberg Clarinet Concerto ranks as the most electrifying of concerto experiences - and a violinist I hadn't heard before, the beautiful Viviane Hagner.

Dare I confess that I've never heard the Quartet for the end of time live before? Well, we all have surprising gaps in our musical experience, and I dare say it was worth waiting for this particular context. From his privileged place among the stars, if you believe in such things, Messiaen would no doubt have honed in through the melange of centenary tributes to the still small voice of calm represented by Kriikku's 'Abime des oiseaux', featuring quite simply the most supernatural swells from true pianissimo to fortissimo. A hard act to follow, but Gerhardt and Hagner matched it in their meditations, watchfully anchored by Osborne. What a riveting pianist he is, earlier breaking the bounds of the possible in the finale of the Ravel Trio (clever programming, this: not only does Ravel ultimately seem to anticipate some of Messiaen's bigger threshes, but each piece was vitally affected by the World War threatening to engulf it). Should I drop Jurowski's Tristan Act Two on Saturday and return to the Wigmore for Osborne in the Vingt regards? I think I shall.

As for the stature of the Quatuor, it lives up to its transcendental aims even if you were not to know anything of its circumstances (Messiaen sketched the 'Abime' while impounded by the Nazis in a field near Nancy, adding the other seven movements as a POW in Stalag VIII, Goerlitz, Silesia. When he wrote it, the composer lacked a piano; a rather battered one arrived in time for the freezing-cold premiere on 15 January 1941, for which there is even a playbill, illustrated above). I still feel that Messiaen went on to repeat too many of his distinctive formulas, often at too great a length. Yet while I don't take back what I wrote about Turangalila in June, I now wish I'd put myself out for Saint Francois at the Proms. And last night's event, greeted by a silence which could have gone on indefinitely had the players not broken it themselves, was as moving as any of the towering performances I've been lucky to hear this year.

Among them, alas, I can't include Sir Simon Rattle's Schumann with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. While last year's Paradise and the Peri was such a Messiaenic experience, the Fourth Symphony on Monday fell flat for me. So much effort from all concerned, and so little sound coming out. And with the string phrases often falling dead at the players' feet in the RFH, Rattle's crucial lack of line couldn't hide behind burnished sonorities. I left my pal Stephen Johnson to get what he could out of the Second, which was to follow after the interval, but we both agreed it was interesting at best - the occasional clarity of texture - but nowhere close to the supple sheen of a non-period band under the right conductor in this music.

Whereas I'd swapped excellent like for like deserting the BBCSO's Bruckner Five for Boris Giltburg a couple of weeks ago, I fear I was roundly punished for turning my back on the latest BBCSO concert in Sir Simon's favour. For while the new Sam Hayden piece sounds to have turned out every inch as impossible as its conductor had told me it was - 'stay in the bar for that one', had been the advice, following many hours spent making the rhythms legible to the best sight-reading orchestra in the world - Gil Shaham in Mozart and Stravinsky had, according to two of my students, been a joyous tour de force.

Elliott Carter, Messiaen's junior by one day, is 100. I'm afraid I'm not going there again if I can help it. He may be a nice guy - if a dreadfully long-winded speaker - and I'm glad he's reached the grand old age he has, with so many crucial memories intact. But, while I can admire some of the technique, his music has never spoken to me. My loss, some would say.

4 comments:

Jon said...

You utter, inadvertent genius. I've been frantically searching for the right music to top and tail a novel I've adapted for the radio, and the Quartet For the End of Time is absolutely, definitively what I need.

You may listen to Radio 4 sometime around March with a sense of smug satisfaction.

david said...

Well, even though I'd rather be an advertent genius, I'm pleased. I once did the same (advertently) for Lucy Hannah - can't remember now what the play was, but I thought Britten's Third String Quartet would do it. And it did.

Having now heard the Vingt regards (instead of Tristan Act 2, OR Joyce DiDonato), I can also say that 'Le baiser de l'enfant Jesus' is one of the most moving still pieces I've ever heard. At last Steven Osborne came into his own after supporting the others on Wednesday so beautifully. More anon.

Can you say what the novel is yet, and which bit(s) you chose?

Jon said...

Not yet, alas, or the Beeb would string me up (or, more accurately, not commission anything else, which would be worse). But I needed something stark, consoling, jagged, ominous, and warm all at the same time. And it had to be 20th century, so you can see the extent of the indavertent genius.

The first episode will open with the Liturgie de Cristal, however, I may candidly tell you, and the last conclude with a bit of the Louange a l'eternite de Jesus. Choosing music for shows is one of my favourite ways of discovering non-vocal music- I'm an inveterate canary-fancier but am desperately ignorant when it comes to things without voices.

You may be interested to know that the utter, all time dramatist's friend is Ives' 'The Unanswered Question'. I have been in no fewer than four stage productions which have concluded with it, chosen it for two further radio shows, and seen several other plays which have joyfully exploited those slow, beautiful chords.

david said...

I can understand about the Ives, and I remember what you wrote on PB about certain voices in certain pieces - Janowitz in 'Und ob die Wolke' - grabbing the listeners' imagination.

I'm sure Tavener's Protecting Veil (another high-lying ecstatic cello line like the one in the middle of the Quatuor) must crop up a great deal in that kind of context, and Pa(e)rt's Cantus to the Memory of Benjamin Britten. That's why I mentioned the 'Baiser'. Simple is often best (remember the Grainger 'Norwegian Bridal Tune' at the beginning of the Merchant/Ivory Howard's End - admittedly a film, not radio drama, but it would work equally well in both contexts).