Sunday 10 August 2008
Prom PCM4 Harawi Messiaen
If there's any way you can listen to the BBC lunchtime Prom tomorrow (live on BBC Radio 3 and available online on demand for a week), do it ! It's Messiaen's Harawi. Messiaen didn't write much for voice and this is his "big" vocal statement. Tomorrow's singer is Gweneth-Ann Jeffers who is making the piece her speciality. I heard her sing it last February at the South Bank, with the same pianist, Simon Lepper. She was magnificent, and I suspect the ultra high profile of the Proms will bring out even more from her. There's no recording of her, so the broadcast will be important.
Harawi is worth studying because it's Messiaen in miniature, so to speak. Just piano and soprano : but like Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus-Christ, it's homeopathic distllation, powerfully effective. Like so much of Messiaen's other work, it develops in progression, not narrative but impressionistic. Harawi shows that Messiaen's ideas of procession aren't just Christian, for the Gods here are decidedly pagan, not even exclusively Peruvian. Harawi unfolds like a ritual.
Note the strange rhythms, like incantation, like dancers entering mystical trances, hypnotised by repeated sound patterns. The singer sings onomatopaiec sounds, repeated over, interspersed with "real" words from time to time like signposts. Like birds in dense jungles, meaning is glimpsed in sudden flashes of colour. Exotica, for Messiaen, is a vibrant celebration of the richness and diversity of life. Here, though the lovers die, they are transfigured into stars, "Du temps, du ciel, de l'eau". The jungle, too, is a metaphor for intense passion, beyond the constraints of "civilization". So there's menace, too, a kind of exotic, exuberant savagery. Harawi
is often compared to Tristan und Isolde because of the love/death thing but it's much more "primitive" in the sense that these lovers are more than characters but part of the flora and fauna of the mystic jungle they inhabit.