Friday, 24 October 2008

Embryo riot ! Cambreling Messiaen Poemes pour Mi

Think Messiaen, think colour. This concert combined basic Messiaen works with popular standards, so it might have helped audiences unfamiliar with the composer. Perhaps it might have worked earlier in the year. By now, most people will have figured out how Debussy, Scriabin and Messiaen connect. Nonetheless, it was a chance to hear another prolific Messiaen specialist, Sylvain Cambreling, conduct two basic works often held up as classic examples of the composer’s work. Réveil des Oiseaux and Poèmes por Mi are Messiaen in embryo.

Embryo is the right work, for Poèmes pour Mi was conceived at a critical moment in Messiaen’s life. His first wife, Claire Delbos, was pregnant again after suffering several miscarriages. At the same time, Delbos wrote her own cycle, L’Âme en bourgeon (The Soul in bud) to texts by Messiaen’s own mother, who wrote them while she was carrying him. This is a perfect, mystical union, the significance of which was not lost on those who knew the composer. Sadly, after Delbos’s child was born, she became mentally ill and died in an institution 30 years later. “Study this cycle”, said the composer, “and you’ll understand my work”.

What we heard tonight was the orchestral version of the piano/voice original. The delicate “moonlight” textures in the piano part become more elaborate, and are attractive, but something of the intensely “inward” intimacy is lost. Messiaen and Delbos had just bought an isolated cottage : some of the images in the text are quite domestic. One refers to the small lake nearby, “Le lac comme un gros bijoux bleu”. The orchestration puts more pressure on the singer, too. Unfortunately, Mireille Delunsch, who was scheduled, had to cancel as early as June 2008. Lauren Flanigan, who stood in, has extensive experience singing new American operas and has worked with conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas and Gerald Schwarz in Seattle, but this doesn’t make anyone a natural for Messiaen’s idiosyncratic idiom. Best not, then, to dwell on the vocal part. Those unfamiliar with the cycle might be advised to listen to a recording. Françoise Pollet, with Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra is the benchmark. Hopefully we’ll be able to hear it again soon as there are several very good Messiaen singers around, and London is only two hours from Paris by train these days. On 17th October, I heard a stunning performance of the piano/voice version by Gweneth Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper in Oxford.

If the orchestral version has a different ambience to the piano/voice version, Cambreling made the most of the more elaborate colorations. He conducted with great refinement and got lustrous, detailed playing from his musicians. Each of these songs is distinctive and needs individual emphasis : horrified dissonances in Épouvante, shimmering glissandi in Le Collier. The “wavering” sounds in the string section were not like vibrato in voice, but built up from careful modulation, precisely controlled. The final song, Prière exacuée, is particularly well suited to orchestra, where a rich carillon like multiple bells is created by different instruments and combinations. The ending is vivid, picking up the staccato refrain “Frappe, tape, choque”, cymbals crashing on the crest.

Birdsong appears early in Messiaen’s work, but reaches maturity in Réveil des Oiseaux. It’s a key work, for here Messiaen is drawing musical ideas directly from the sounds and movements of nature, rather than incorporating them symbolically. It’s a breakthrough, for Messiaen observes how, in a dawn chorus, each bird has its own distinctive character, and different sound exist together on different levels, rather than combining. Thus the woodlark on piccolo, Cetti’s Warbler on E flat clarinet and so on. No wonder ornithologists marvel at this music – they can identify the birds, even though they are not “realistic” in a scientific way. The piano part represents a robin, singing on its own, above and within the tumult. Messiaen notices, too, how birds are aware of their surroundings : the chorus stops suddenly, as the birds “listen”, then starts again. Birds don’t stay still, they dart about in random patterns : this is in gestation the idea of multi layered time George Benjamin demonstrated in his concert of 21st October. Roger Muraro provided a depth that held the piece together, allowing the individual soloists to soar. Specially impressive was Maya Iwabuchi, Leader of the First violins. At the end, the dense panoply of sound dissipates; All we hear is the tapping of a woodpecker. The heat of the noonday sun has arrived, and the birds take shelter. This is the germination of the intensive, multi-level invention behind the “spectralist” masterpiece, Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces acoustiques, which created such an overwhelming sensation on 14th October. Embryos gain !

Rather less successful, on the surface, was Cambreling’s Debussy Prélude de l’Après-midi d’un Faune. It was nicely refined and glossy rather than erotic. Perhaps he realises we’ve heard this so often before we merely need to remember its impressionistic colours in relation to Messiaen, and hear it in those terms rather than through the imprint we all carry from Nijinsky’s powerful realization in ballet. After having heard so much Messiaen this year, the relevance of Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase is obvious. Scriabin gorges on colour so much so that he gets congested. It’s when Messiaen releases the constraints of structural form that extremes of orchestral colour run riotously free.

For descriptions of the concerts mentioned above go to the list on the right and hit "Messiaen" Read about the piano song version of this cycle and its background by following the subject tags at the right for Messiaen and Lieder. (Look up October). This blog is the biggest non official Messiaen site on the net, so welcome to browse.

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