It's very sad when such a stunning concert is so poorly attended. Those that braved the onslaught of late Messiaen were well rewarded, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on top form and a truly visionary interpretation by an animated Thierry Fischer.

© Scott Jarvie
© Scott Jarvie

The evening started with lightest of soufflés, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K364 with violinist Veronika Eberle and viola player Antoine Tamestit. Their performance of one of Mozart’s most loved concertante works showed us just why this is so. The contrast between the sharp, precise tone of Eberle’s violin and the mellow, subtle phrasing of Tamestit’s enabled them to bounce off each other in an entertaining way. This was a civilised conversation between two lively minds. The fast paced Andante, surely one of Mozart's greatest slow movements, was particularly luscious, where the warmth of melody and feeling was caught by soloists and orchestra to a tee. In the lively finale, both soloists opened their shoulders and carried off the quick fire exchanges with aplomb; a life enhancing performance indeed.

Next came the potentially life changing experience of hearing Eclairs sur l’au-delà by Messiaen. It was his last completed work and is on the same massive scale as all the works composed in the final decades of his life. It could be said that the piece is like a musical version of that near death experience of “life flashing before your eyes”. The piece is a summary of all the musical styles that the composer had used to express himself over his 60 year career. The suggestion that this vast structure of 11 varied movements could have been too piecemeal to sustain itself over 70 minutes, was firmly dispelled in this excellent performance.

Each of the movements has its own distinct character, reflected in the careful combination of instrumental groups. In the first movement “Apparition of Christ in Glory”, its monumental processional expands upon one of Messiaen’s early works, L’ascension and sets the scene for what is to come. Elements of the extravagantly lush Turangalîla-Symphonie appear in the next two movements, as well as birdsong elements from his countless explorations. In the fifth movement, “Abiding in Love”, we find ourselves in the meditative string world whose most famous predecessor is the final movement of the Quartet for the End of Time, this time with greatly developed melodic scope. The muted unison violins of the BBCSO produced a ravishing sound and Fischer judged the tempo superbly, making a dramatic point of the pauses that punctuate the movement.

Notable in the later stages of the piece was the touching seventh movement “And God shall wipe every tear from their eyes”, which reaches a place of absolute simplicity and innocence through its unalloyed use of shafts of D major. It is an unusual atmosphere for Messiaen, suggesting a recollection of early childhood. “The Stars and Glory” is the most dramatic and varied movement, with echoes again of Turangalîla and earlier works, the virtuous demands of this expertly navigated by Thierry and BBCSO. “Many birds of the trees of Life” is comically literal, with flutes and clarinets of all shapes and sizes heard chattering to themselves in an orgy of aleatoric twitterings. The BBCSO woodwind section certainly sounded in fine voice here.

After one more dramatic outburst in the tenth movement, “The Way of the Invisible”, we returned to the ecstatic string world of “Abiding in Love”, the violins exquisitely playing lush harmonies, underpinned by cellos and violas. Capping this visionary outpouring was a constantly tinkling triangle, a moving and beautiful conclusion to the piece and to Messiaen’s career. In this fine performance, I was persuaded that Eclairs sur l’au-delà could quite possibly be the composer's finest orchestral work.