Sir Simon Rattle conducted Messiaen and Bruckner with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle's love for these composers shone forth, inspiring the LSO to respond with greater verve than they've sometimes performed of late.
An astonishingly vivid Messiaen Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963). This work doesn't quite get the attention it deserves, coming between truly exceptional works like Chronochromie and Et Exspecto resurrectionem Mortuorum, Read here about Rattle's Et exspecto in 2011. In comparison, Couleurs de la cité céleste seems like a typical Messiaen study in light and colour. The piece shimmers, resplendent and glowing as if it were made of gemstones refracting light. Yet it also reflects the cosmological belief that, at the Apocalypse, the world will be destroyed by cataclysm. yet above the chaos, a vision will appear in the heavens: the celestial city of eternal life.
Rattle demonstrated the innate strength that underpins the firm foundations on whuch Couleurs de la cité céleste is built. Conductors who think Messiaen is self indulgent excess don't understand the composer at all. Witness a shamefully self indulgent Turangalîla-Symphonie (definitely not Rattle) not too long ago. The piece begins with short, sharp dissonant shards, their impact marked with carefully observed intervals. When Boulez conducted it with Ensemble Intercontemporain in 2008, these chords seemed monumental. Rattle captured that same sense of dramatic portent. When the "bells" of percussion rang out they felt like reiterations of those first chords, marking a stage of transition.
Just as with Buddhist mandalas and Sanskrit wheels, the symmetry in Couleurs de la cité céleste affirms meaning. Messiaen observed that birds descended from dinosaurs: hence the presence of birds at the End of Time, not so much in bird song as in the jerky angular movements birds make when they're on the ground, which Pierre-Laurent Aimard defined with great insight. Soon, we know, these earthbound birds will take flight. Symmetry, too, in the instrumentation: three clarinets, three trombones, three percussion instruments forming a central core. Scurrying percussive figures gathered speed, hurrying the music along. Expansive brass chords, surging forth. Massive tam tam crashes, then sudden silence. which in this performance felt suitably, like a shock. Rattle makes telling connections between Couleurs de la cité céleste and Et Exspecto resurrectionem Mortuorum.
Bruckner Symphony no 8, which followed, was conducted and played with majesty. Listening to Bruckner after Messiaen reveals different perspectives. Emotionally I was still in the "mountains" of Messiaen's apocalyptic ecstasy, so I picked up on details I don't usually hear in the grand design. Nonetheless, that's good. Often i think of Bruckner the man, an oddball figure lurking behind his huge structures. If this concert signifies LSO's future with Rattle, we have lots of good things to look forward to.