“I imagined myself in front of a curtain, in darkness, apprehensive about what lay beyond: Resurrection, Eternity, the other life.” This is how Olivier Messiaen described his inspiration for Éclairs sur l'au-delà, his valedictory work that mingles the composer's fascinations with Roman Catholic theology, ornithology and the cosmic. This was his last completed work, commission for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1992, the première occuring some six months after his death. The general dearth of performances can be attributed to the demands of the music, not least the need to assemble over 120 players. On this occasion, the audience was treated to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra playing alongside the musicians of the NZSO National Youth Orchestra for the first time under the baton of experienced Messiaen conductor Sir Andrew Davis. In another respect, we were lucky the concert happened at all. Due to flight issues, the full cohort of musicians almost didn't all arrive from the Wellington show the night before, a short talk on the work at hand by Davis providing the cover for the last players to arrive backstage.

Sir Andrew Davis © Lucas Dawson
Sir Andrew Davis
© Lucas Dawson

Neither the rushed nature of their arrival nor the youth of half of the musicians was at all noticeable in what was an unfailingly engaged and beautifully conceived performance. Right from the still solemnity of the very first brass chorale, the players of both orchestras showed themselves to be truly immersed in Messiaen's unique soundworld. What a thrill it must have been to make their joint debut on such a spectacular occasion! The gigantic woodwind section (with ten each of flutes and clarinets) excelled in the birdsong that truly provided a unifying force for the disparate moods of the eleven movements. The ninth movement Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vie was a magnificent avian cacophony, dozens of birds twittering and shrieking with a palpable sense of exuberance. Specific mention should be made of principal flute Bridget Douglas, providing the most idiomatic shaping possible of birdsong, simultaneously alert in rhythm and uncontrived in phrasing. There was unswervingly thrilling precision in the pitched percussion section (xylophone, marimba and xylorimba as well as tubular bells) and I've heard very little as gorgeous as the massed strings in the lyrical outpourings of the fifth Demeurer dans l’Amour movement and the rapturous final movement

Davis' interpretation had the audience consistently transported throughout, excelling both in the extroverted and the more poetic sections of the score. Each successive strophe in the first movement further amplified the tension, leading into a perfectly realised marriage of the tangible (birdsong) and incorporeal (stars and nebulas) of La Constellation du Sagittaire. Though the orchestra is very large Messiaen rarely uses all instruments at once, instead allowing different combinations of timbre to emerge. Davis achieved maximum clarity throughout – each call of the lyrebird in the third movement felt like an individually textured moment. The aforementioned fifth movement was shaped with aching intensity, the long lines concentrated in passion without ever sinking into overindulgence. Nor did Davis shy away from grandeur. The seven angels of the sixth movement were truly terrifying, Messiaen's unusual rhythmic figurations consistently tight and snappy, the forceful percussion evoking a petrifying day of judgment. Contrastingly, he was also able to create just the right naiveté for Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux. The interpretation was crowned by the most rapt rendition of the last movement imaginable, all yearningly luminescent and full of spellbinding nobility of tone from the orchestra.

Éclairs sur l'au-delà feels like a summation of Messiaen's compositional career, revisiting many of the fundamental inspirations into which Messiaen delved during his career. In Les Étoiles et la Gloire and Le Chemin de l’Invisible, one kept hearing hints of the Joie du sang des étoiles movement of the same composer's much earlier Turangalîla-Symphonie, the spirit of L'Ascension haunted the opening movement and as mentioned, birdsong was heard consistently. As Messiaen's health deteriorated he was drawn ever further into his faith, grappling with the idea of resurrection and the next life. “I try simply to imagine what will come to pass, which I can sometimes perceive in ‘éclairs.’ I speak of course of Christ, who will be the light of the resurrected: they will shine with the light of Christ.” This light of the divine felt omnipresent in Davis' interpretation and the orchestra's playing, Messiaen's meticulously detailed depictions of nature becoming reflections of the celestial. This relationship between the temporal and the spiritual is vital in the music of this composer and reached something of an apotheosis on this occasion. Davis and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra took a risk in putting on this work, a risk that was triumphantly vindicated in this truly astonishing performance.

*****