Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà is Messiaen’s final work, first performed in 1991. Sir Simon Rattle, in his preamble to the concert, described it as “like having your head banged against a brick wall”. Lasting over an hour and demanding 128 musicians (I counted at least 13 percussionists) across eleven movements, it is a work, inspired by the Book of Revelation, that offers divergent musical experiences contained in the strange first word of the title. Éclairs can mean “flashes” – as in lightning – but also “illuminations”. Consequently, it is full of blinding moments of shattering disjuncture as well as divine, backlit radiance.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan

The first movement’s chorale for brass and winds was ritualistic and imposing, but warmed by sculpted and responsive phrasing, and meeting the challenges of blend and balance in Messiaen’s peculiar orchestration, heavy on winds in the lower registers. The London Symphony Orchestra’s sound was concentrated and homogenous in many of the great unisons and chorales scattered across this work. Such definition in the ensemble induces an awful feeling of massiveness, even surrender, where Messiaen’s broad, blurry harmonies pull you under.

Elsewhere, Rattle’s affinity for Mahler shaped his approach, such as in the fifth’s movement’s luxurious Adagio “Abide in Love”, for strings alone. The LSO strings walked a line between delicacy, summoning in Messiaen that cosmic distance so essential to his sound, as well as a Tristan-like voluptuousness that was grounded in the human world. Their climactic top G sharp wasn’t exactly in tune, but its scream showed what Rattle sees as the work’s “equality of ecstasy and terror”.

Rattle’s approach is brash, bright and more vehement than other, more French, approaches to this music; he can make its dance-like moments sound like West Side Story, with just as many Technicolor thrills. The attacks of the work’s eighth movement revelled in these extravagant orchestral colours and textures, from oozing contrabass clarinet and double basses at its outset, to craggy solos for three xylophones, culminating in an overwhelmingly solid orchestral unison. Rattle has a keen feeling for the work’s glowering inevitability, particularly in the movement seven, “The Seven Angels with the Seven Trumpets”, whose unison horns and trombones trod out their sinuous melodies against a backdrop of bass drum, tam-tams and ear-splitting slapstick that was more raw than hieratic.

Rattle wanted us to feel the sublime terrors of this celestial city rather than muse contentedly on its solemnity or philosophical and liturgical significance. One of many standout moments was the ninth movement, “Several Birds from the Trees of Life”. Messiaen’s central image for this sequence is Christ as a tree and his followers as birds. Rattle dispersed the army of flautists and clarinettists amongst the audience. It is a sequence of improvisatory passages where the music’s imposing and palatial architecture finds some flex. The effect was astonishing, as the 18 woodwind soloists – particularly the explosive squalls from E flat clarinets – grew increasingly raucous and lyrically profligate. These birds called to Christ in both desperation and ecstatic adoration. Most of the birdsong in Éclairs comes from Messiaen’s trip to Australia, where the avian music – as anyone who has been there will tell you – is especially vivid and garrulous. This piece of orchestral theatre summoned that experience in its overloaded sensory intensity and piercing brightness.

Messiaen’s original title for the piece was to be Déchirures sur l’Au-delà, “tears” evoking the rending of the veil of the temple. He turned away from it because it might suggest some ambivalence on his part about his faith in salvation, but the penultimate movement describes the violence implied in that title. Here Rattle made the harmonies wrench and the woodwinds jar, with unfailing and vehement attacks, the basses slumping in anger and defeat to their lowest C.

The Éclairs of that movement are flashes that rip us from the world we’re in to take us to the one beyond. In the final movement, a second slow movement for muted strings, we return to the blazing illumination that the title also points toward. In Rattle’s hands the divinity in this music comes from string playing that is unashamedly luxurious, dynamically pliant and deeply sensuous; paradise is here, and it is in our ears. It is a movement backlit by a permanent triangle shimmer, demanding extraordinary stamina and control, ringing out alone, in a moment of startling fragility, when the strings fall away. The world Messiaen describes is one he would never hear in concert because he joined it months after completing this astonishing work. A long silence fell after the final luminous chord, an intense hush affording us all a glimpse of the infinite.