It's about time. Certainly Chronochromie is about the colour of time, but grasping the essence of much of Messiaen's music depends on being in synchrony with his take on time in music – specifically intimations of the eternal. His endeavour to create such a musical environment requires jettisoning many of western music givens: regular metre; harmonic rhythm; a sense of destination and relief at its arrival. A mystic such as Messiaen was sufficiently comfortable with paradox to embrace the compositional rhythmic rigour that this approach would entail. Such swans' feet include Indian tâlas, Ars Nova taleas and isorhythms. Of course, the resultant experience is very different inside and outside the orchestra. The listeners' free-flowing experience is bought at the expense of superb musicianship and preparation.

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra © Richard Haughton
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
© Richard Haughton

The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is just the ensemble to lay on such a treat. Under the agile, enthusiastic baton of Jonathan Nott, they gave joyous performances of Messiaen's Chronochromie (1960) and Sept Haïkaï (1962). Despite many contrasts, both pieces share important features: a wealth of birdsong; vibrato-free string playing and a symmetrical, seven-movement form (arch-form was also a favourite of Messiaen's programme partner, Bartók). Despite the modern idiom, both works refer to ancient forms. Chronochromie consists of Strophes, Antistrophes and an Epode - a Greek choral ode, whose simultaneous presentation of eighteen bird-songs rattled some cages at the work's premier. Sept Haïkaï, written after the composer's trip to Japan, pivots around a central depiction of 7th century Japanese court music – Gagaku.

Space, in addition to time, featured in the evening's events. I couldn't help noticing that the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's chosen layout was the mirror of the standard one, where double basses appear on the audience's right. Their layout made sense to me, with low notes on the left. Moreover, they didn't shrink from the sea change occasioned by the contrasting forces, and the arrival of the grand piano, in Sept Haïkaï. The dialogue between soloist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the small orchestra comprised the 25 birdsongs which constitute much of the work – the piece is dedicated to (amongst others) the Japanese ornithologist Hoshino. As the fêted xylophone and marimba players would attest, Sept Haïkaï is a team piece, as opposed to a piano concerto, and the mutual appreciation shown by all concerned was touching.

This year's EIF theme of Europe Meets Asia visited dark territory in Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin Op. 19 (complete ballet) . Based on a story by Menyhért (Melchior) Lengyel (who was later an Academy Award nominee), it is a low-life tale set in a Hungary about to be digested by the Soviet Union. Three tramps compel a prostitute to lure victims into a room where they are to be robbed. The first two, an old rake and a young student, prove to have little material wealth. The third, a distinguished-looking Chinese character, certainly seems wealthy but proves to be more difficult to dispatch than imagined. Only when the prostitute suggests giving in to the Mandarin's seemingly inextinguishable desire do the effects of smothering, hanging and stabbing finally overcome him. Premièred in 1926, the work caused a scandal and was promptly banned. The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, completed one year later, is the form in which the piece became – and remains - more widely known.

From the opening depiction of the city's bustling traffic, this promised to be a performance of great drive. The leit motifs - the clarinet's seductive lockspieles, the Rake's trombone glissandi,the student's nervous 5/4 dance and the Mandarin's pentatonic theme – were all played with great character. The fugal chase – of the prostitute by the Mandarin – was breathless. This is where the Suite ends. One distinctive feature present only in the complete ballet score is the vocalise by a large chorus, accompanying the eerie, luminous glow given off by the Mandarin – at this point hanging from a lamp. Beginning with a simple, descending minor 3rd (the interval associated with the Mandarin), this gradually increases in pitch, density and dissonance. In contrast to the Rake's appetitive, ascending minor 3rds, these had the air of the chronicle of a death foretold. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus – quiet witnesses to the evening's derelictions – paced this scene magnificently. One barely noticed their entry and the sustained tension through the slow crescendo contributed greatly to this final scene where, it seemed, desire's fulfilment succeeded where traditional weaponry had failed.

It was unfortunate that such a committed, expressive performance did not enjoy as full a house as many earlier Usher Hall, EIF events. Perhaps many visitors had already begun their return journeys, highlighting the city of the Enlightenment's uneasy embrace of contemporaneity.