A concert with the theme “Visions of Ecstasy” may arouse expectations of The Dance of the Seven Veils or Scriabin’s Le Poème de l'extase. But even the concert stage will not let us forget that this is 2020. As the second of its 13 pre-recorded concerts this fall, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner presented ecstasy of a higher and more severe order in this stream from Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. The first half of the program featured a performance of Messiaen’s monumental Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum: And I await the Resurrection of the Dead. Brass, woodwind, and percussion players were socially distanced but unmasked in the space where audience members usually sit. The second half featured the string section on stage in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

Edward Gardner © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Seldom have I experienced so resolute a concert program, solemn right down to the facial expressions of every orchestra member, which never wavered in terms of concentration and intent. Conducting without a baton, Gardner, Principal Conductor Designate, officiated like a priest, lit from below as from some otherworldly source.

But the Messiaen is no dirge. The work is in five movements expressing a spiritual ascent described in scriptural quotations. These deal with the depth of human despair, the revelation of a path to salvation, and the Christian belief in absolution and mystical embrace in the arms of God. Each section has a distinct personality and showcases particular instruments. As engrossing as the music may be, the effect of complete silence between movements is staggering, each silence a minute that seems engulfed by eternity.

Messiaen performed in the Stalls © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Messiaen performed in the Stalls
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

From the growling bass instruments of the opening, through clusters of Messiaen’s oddly engaging discords melted in the shimmer of gong and piccolo, the first movement presents a Psalm 130 unlike any we have heard before.

The scriptural text in huge white letters dominated the viewing screen between sections. In the second movement, Christ is raised from the dead like a wisp of smoke, in a slender ripple of sound, followed by phrases from clarinet, oboe, flute, and English horn that demonstrate Messiaen’s affinity for those instruments. “The hour is coming” is the theme of the third movement, with birdsong, bells and an urgent crescendo in the tam tam.

“They will be raised in glory,” the fourth movement responds, Gardner’s arms raised skyward as though consecrating some unknown sacrament. The work concludes with great blocks of sound, impressive stretches of trombone and chimes, transporting the listeners outside of time. Following a steady ostinato, the music rose in a whir of what might well be angel wings, creeping higher and fading into a darkness that soon engulfs the hall.

Pieter Schoeman © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Pieter Schoeman
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

After this remarkable performance, the Schoenberg was a tame and familiar trope. Originally a sextet, this pre-12-tone work was inspired by a story of conflict between two lovers. However, Verklärte Nacht is not programmatic, but rather a tone poem that awakens emotion and sets sail on pure feeling. The silvery first violin solo passages, which appear slyly like the rising moon in a night sky, were delicately etched by leader Pieter Schoeman. Verklärte Nacht is a work with the potential to sound monotonous (and did a little at the beginning), but Gardner’s sensitive direction unlocked hidden layers of feeling and originality. And so, though the concert program had an unwavering air of seriousness, there was great beauty to be found in its visionary depths.

 

 This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV video stream

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