Olivier Messiaen was one of the few 20th-century figures who straddled the post-romantic/neoclassical world of the 1930s and the postwar avant-garde. His deeply personal voice and its influence echoed far and wide across the decades and across national boundaries. In his early work he followed the tradition in French romantic music of combining sensuality and religiosity. However, in his later work, which Des Canyons aux etoiles (1971 – 74) is the first example, the juxtaposition is more between the innocence of nature through birdsong in relation to the deeply spiritual world of his catholic faith.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

In this fine performance there was a danger that the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall would swallow up the delicate chamber-like sonorities of much of the work, but this proved not to be the case. The potency of the musical Messiaenic world drew in the audience and held them for over its ninety minutes duration.

The musicianship of the BBCSO under Sakari Oramo was second to none, with particular emphasis on the horn solos, effortlessly presented by Martin Owen and the xylorimba and glockenspiel parts, flawlessly delivered by David Hockings and Alex Neal. However, the solo star of the show was the pianist Nicolas Hodges who navigated the fiendish piano part, written for the composer’s wife Yvonne Loriod, without ever appearing at the end of his virtuosic tether. The bright percussive passages gleamed and when he needed to be reflective, as in the exquisite eighth movement, his touch was quite delicate and refined. At no time did he appear to force sounds out of the piano, when he needed to be assertive, as in his second solo movement, Le Moqueur polyglot, this was well controlled, but also thrilling in its effect.

Across the vast expanse of the twelve movements, the cumulative effect was most telling and the success of this was largely due to the master navigation of Oramo. Clear rhythmic direction, a sure sense of the structure of each movement and understanding of the importance of the pauses in the music, were at the core of the performance.

Highlights included all three finales to the three parts, each finding an ecstatic conclusion which rounded up the wildly diverse thematic material. The most purely beautiful was the eighth movement, Les Ressucités et le chant de l'étoile Aldebaran, which echoed a similar mood in the Jardin du Sommeil d’amour movement from the Turangalîla-Symphonie. The filigree embellishments around the chord of A major proved utterly mesmerising. The penultimate movement, Omao, leiothrix, elepaio, shama, is the apotheosis of birdsong, omnipresent throughout the work, but here Messiaen combines it with ancient Indian rhythms in a manner familiar from his earlier Oiseaux exotiques.

This rare outing for an important work is surely what the Proms is all about. Even though the audience was not huge, for those that came and stayed course it was a musical experience to savour.

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