This evening’s programme of Messiaen and Bruckner ought to have come with a health warning beforehand – caution: not for the fainthearted.
Following on from Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration last month, the LSO’s programming seems to be continuing in a similar vein, with this concert united by the theme of death and religious conviction. Both Messiaen and Bruckner were Catholic, but where Messiaen remains optimistic about the inevitability of eternal life, Bruckner seems more resigned to his fate in death.
Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (I await the resurrection of the dead) draws upon the three central influences throughout his work: religion, birdsong and Eastern rhythms. Requiring no less than seven percussionists, the work was punctuated throughout by the sounding of two immense tam-tams, the larger one completely dwarfing the percussionist sandwiched between the two. At times they came in with a sudden crash, at others with a gradual crescendo. The ear-splitting roar of the tam-tam proved too much for some, who were forced to plug their ears in defence. I can only hope that the musicians themselves were protected with earplugs in such close proximity.
My neighbour referred to the piece as a ‘wall of sound’, though I’m not sure this is the kind of thing Phil Spector had in mind. In fact, this performance surpassed anything I’ve heard at a rock concert in terms of pure decibel level. Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss Messiaen as purely noise. This is a highly varied piece composed of several different building blocks in a mosaic-like pattern. The solemn opening winds revealed Messiaen’s background as a church organist, while the percussion sounded themes from both Eastern and Western religions. The second movement displayed an acute intimacy, with outstanding solos from the plaintive oboe and tender flute. At the opposite end, the piercing, almost human-like cries from the wind ensemble were particularly terrifying. Rattle used minimal direction here, allowing the musicians plenty of space to breathe and fill the expansiveness of Messiaen’s vast cathedral-like dimensions.
The highlight was the hypnotic finale signalling the impending resurrection, where gongs of different pitches sounded regular 4-beat groupings, in contrast to the rhythmic ambiguity of the previous sections. If this was the orchestral equivalent of a firework display, then the best was certainly saved until last.
As Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle is used to working with the world’s best, and the LSO is no exception. In his first visit to the orchestra in several years, Rattle was an immensely exciting conductor to watch, at times dropping his baton entirely and letting the music unfold before him, at others driving the musicians as if his life depended on it. He worked himself into such a frenzy you almost felt as if he was about to take off from the stage. He conducted the entire concert without the aid of a score, the empty space before him on the podium mirroring the spaciousness in the music.
The amassed forces squeezed themselves onto the stage for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, deliberately written in the key of D minor as a homage to Beethoven’s Ninth. Bruckner is a composer that divides listeners. While some are highly fanatical, such as the members of the International Bruckner Society who come to performances armed with pocket scores, there are others who joke that ‘he wrote the same symphony nine times’.
For those who remain unconvinced about Bruckner, the LSO proved to be a worthy advocate for his music in this performance. The opening movement was majestic but never turgid, as is so often the danger with Bruckner’s vast proportions. The Scherzo opened in a deceptively sprightly manner before launching into the main theme with plenty of bite and hellfire. There was a wonderful elasticity in the trio, which at times veered off into a rustic Mahlerian Ländler, though never for too long before returning back to the insistent main theme.
The performers managed to eke out every last ounce of tension in the intensely Romantic finale, and if the somewhat understated ending comes as a surprise, it is precisely because it was not intended as the end - Bruckner died before completing the Symphony. For the composer who had dedicated the work to God, in the end it was the Almighty himself who had the final say over when the work was finished.