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La Mort et la nouvelle vie from Saint François d'Assise & La Fauvette Passerinette

David Josefowitz Rectial Hall & Angela Burgess Rectial Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London
13th June 2024

The Summer Piano Festival is a busy few days at the Royal Academy of Music. There is always something exciting and The Art of the Piano Transcription proved this. Hosted by Professor Mei-Ting Sun, he spoke of how impressed he is with his students, blessed with overflowing talent and a mastery in their technique of transcription. Staggeringly, Julian Chan took it upon himself to arrange the finale of Messiaen's leviathan Saint François d'Assise. You wouldn't think it was possible really, the orchestration alone took an eye watering four years to formulate. Chan wowed with a well handedly reining in of the mass of orchestra, chorus and soloist. There remained many shimmering, flashing colours ever present, Chan's cataclysmic playing saw Henry Cowell like tone clusters, a rampant, storm like conjuring physicality and a rhythmic vitality that the composer demands. The finale few bars of extreme crescendo was a feat and quite flooring. It's almost as Chan could take on the whole opera.
 

Later, the afternoon of Piano, Multimedia, Film opened yet again with Messiaen. Audiovisual artist Kathy Hinde has collaborated with the pianists in creating their own film work to complement their playing. Xiaowen Shang played La Fauvette Passerinette, the rediscovered and arranged from Peter Hill, work of Messiaen's. Quite harsh yet, profound in nature, the birdsong of the Subalpine Warblers and the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch were the inspiration. Shang drudged through the density, bringing alive what works so well in the twisted birdsong. This stirring playing was met with less than rewarding video work. The imagery of Bosch is screen wiped and contorted in a fairly easy exercise in media maker effects. Its cues matched the attacks of the score, and it worked to the best of its abilities.

© James Ellis 

Saint Francois d'Assise

Grand Theatre Geneva, Switzerland

11- 14- 16 - 18 April 2024

Musical Director, Jonathan Nott, Saint Francis Robin Adams, The Angel Claire de Sevigne, The Leper Ales Briscein, Brother Leo Kartal Karagedik, Brother Masseo Jason Bridges. Staging, Scenery, Costumes and Video, Adel Abdessemed, Lighting, Jean Kalman, Dramaturgy, Stephan Müller, Choral director, Mark Biggins. Choir du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Choir le Motet de Genève, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Ondes Martenot, Thomas Bloch, Jacques Tchamkerten and Caroline Ehret.

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After weeks of rain and unseasonably cool weather, the sun shone brilliantly over Geneva’s Grand Theatre on the 14th April, and the equally dazzling interior décor was indeed something to behold, although far removed from the subject material that awaited us in the form of Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise.

This production, and another in Hamburg, were scheduled for performance nearly four years ago, but had to be cancelled due to the Covid pandemic (both productions will/have taken place this year).

From the opening first scene (tableau) La Croix, Adel Abdessemed’s artistic personality was clearly apparent combining a unique blend of staging, scenery, costume and video in a sometimes naive and simplistic way that often mirrored Messiaen’s own approach to the score and libretto. As in many previous productions, most of the action takes place downstage due to the huge orchestral and choral forces required by Messiaen’s score – 119 orchestral players and a choir of 150. Abdessemed chose to drop in one or two huge circular screens to project images and videos pertinent to each tableau. While these images were extremely effective, the screens did just hamper some higher frequency detail and balance from the orchestra behind at times. Nonetheless, the all-important three Ondes Martenot’s were clearly defined and placed at the front left, centre and right of the orchestra ensuring clear spacialisation throughout.

Abdessemed’s contemporary 21st century approach was successful in combining the secular aspects of modern-day recycling such as the Frère’s robes adorned with old portable CD players and domestic technological paraphernalia and the Leper draped in plastic refuse bags and light bulbs, with the 13th century fresco of the monastery and a huge replica of the Italian church on Mount Verna in the Stigmata scene.

Messiaen’s (and St. François’s) birds got top billing as expected with a giant dove splashed with blood? and mounted on a mound of stones dominating tableau six, and one screen was devoted to a single looped video of an urban pigeon chosen by Abdessemed as the bird most familiar to him from his Paris home. This animated image was often, but by pure chance, in synchronisation with some of the orchestral rhythmic episodes in tableau six, The Preaching to the Birds, and it was at the end of this scene that Abdessemed ‘levitated’ St. François above the stage rather than at the end of the opera as several productions in the past have opted. Talking of levitation, one must not forget the ascending camel presumably representing the farewell to all God’s creatures and possibly a nod to Stockhausen’s Camel Dance in Mittwoch aus Licht!

The Kissing of the Leper scene was suitably expressive if not quite as movingly gripping as it might be, but Ales Bricein made the most of his miraculous freedom dance. Claire de Sévigné’s Angel was rather more terrestrial than heavenly, dressed in a plain white dress and lacking some of the Zen-like quality Messiaen intended, but her vocal delivery was refined and poignant with expressive intimacy. She made good use of two wing-like accessories that were coloured as the original design suggested by Messiaen. Robin Adams took on the role of St. François with nonchalant authority with liquidity of the phrasing that was often impressive. There were just signs of vocal fatigue towards the final pages of his role, but this somewhat added to the drama and impending conclusion. A strong supporting cast of Brothers performed with committed intensity and individual characterisation, and the wonderful Suisse Romande orchestra under Jonathan Nott’s ebullient musical direction captured the score with vivid immediacy. The last word, or should I say notes must go to the choirs of Choir du Grand Théâtre de Genève and Choir le Motet de Genève who sang immaculately throughout and filled the entire front of stage in the final chorale of Joie! (see photos here)

St. François d'Assise in Stuttgart
11-22-25 June, 2 - 9 July 2023
Staatsoper, Stuttgart

Titus Engel Conductor, Anna-Sophie Mahler Director, Katrin Connan Set Designer, Costume Designer, Janine Grellscheid Video, Georg Lendorff Lighting. Ingo Gerlach Dramaturgy. Staatsorchester Stuttgart Staatsopernchor Stuttgart. Michael Mayes Baritone Saint François, Beate Ritter Soprano L'Ange, Gerhard Siegel Tenor Frère Ellie, Elmar Gilbertsson Tenor Frère Massée, Moritz Kallenberg Tenor Le Lépreux, Danylo Matviienko Baritone Frère Léon, Thomas Bloch, Ondes Martenot, Jacques Tchamkerten, Ondes Martenot, Caroline Ehret, Ondes Martenot

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©Martin Sigmund

To say that putting on a production of St. François d'Assise is ambitious for any opera house is an understatement, but to put on a production and decide to move an entire Act from the opera house to a park area then back again might seem to some, downright foolhardy. Either way that is just what Anna-Sophie Mahler planned for the Staatsoper Stuttgart production that spanned five performances spread over almost a month. Each performance schedule began with a pre concert talk at 1.15pm in the sumptuous grandeur of the first balcony foyer of the opera house, then the performance began in the theatre at 2.00pm with Act I Tableau 1, 2, and 3. (La Croix, Les Laudes and Le Baiser au Lépreux). Then a tram transfer would take the audience to Löwentobrüke park area where  a walk of 1.5km took them to Wartberg while listening to Act II tableau 4 (L'Ange voyageur) on personal headphones that was recorded prior to the performances. At 6.00pm Act III began with tableau 5 and 6 (L'Ange musicien and Le Prêche aux oiseaux) on the Killesberg open air stage. A return trip by tram to the city centre opera house would give time for a light meal before Act IV tableau 7 and 8 (Les Stigmates and La Mort et la nouvelle Vie) began at 9.00pm. So this took an already lengthy 5 hour opera to 8 hours!

HOWEVER, there was a plan B should the weather prove inclement, which was the case on my visit on the 22nd of June. Instead of tram journeys across town, we made a short walk from the opera house to the nearby St, Eberhard's church where a talk and musical demonstration was offered and then we could listen to tableau 4 over headphones in the relative comfort of the church. 

While I applaud the Staatsoper for their creative thinking and the pilgrimage with Messiaen to bring nature into the opera house, I felt a little uncomfortable with the rearrangement of tableaus 4 and 5, but everything was superbly organised with excellent and helpful staff on hand throughout, as well as some Messiaen Angels guiding us through the park to the church(see photo)

A 'sustainability' theme was adopted from the outset and  ‘following a public appeal by Staatsoper Stuttgart, over 300 hoodies were received as donations as costumes. In addition, the Staatsoper distributed knitting kits to interested people who wanted to knit parts of the stage set at home.’ This worked surprisingly well giving a sense of the 13th century rural life of St. François alongside 21st century attitudes and inclinations in the dramaturgy. 

There were some effective lighting and video imagery on display to remind us of Messiaen's thought processes and these were combined to great effect in the Stigmata scene where the choir were writhing from rear to front stage while being projected on the ceiling at the same time (see photo). Lighting and costume also played off each other in the 'Angel' scenes. In this production the Angel took on the identity of a brightly coloured dragonfly and the reflective costume was impressive and dazzling as it caught the lights at different angles. The dragonfly element was carried through in the Death and New Life tableau 8 with video projections of a chrysalis morphing into a fully formed insect superimposed at the front of stage while St. François ascended to heaven as one or the same (see photo). 

Titus Engels conducted with great precision, and the orchestra responded well despite a few rough edges and a slight lack of experience in Messiaen's bird language. Having said that, my musician friends who were performing, thought that the Sermon to the Birds tableau was all the more moving in the open air version, combining 'live' birds with Messiaen's birds.

Michael Mayes (St. François) delivered a heart and soul performance with some (literally) hands on communication with the audience while maintaining the humble spirituality that is so important in the work. I believe that all of the friar brothers were new to the work, except Gerhard Siegel, tenor Frère Ellie, (who performed the role in Madrid 2011) and all gave sterling performances. Moritz Kallenberg as the Leper was exceptional and must be commended for finding his way around the set in such a bulky but effective costume. Beate Ritter's Angel was suitably capricious but just lacked a little purity in pitch in the celestial moments.

Despite what must have been a logistical nightmare at times, this production was vibrant and energised while maintaining the spirituality that was so important to Messiaen and the life of St. François.

TURANGALÎLA SYMPHONIE

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor, Peter Donohoe, piano, Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot.

Barbican Hall, London. 14 June 2023

This concert marked  Sir Simon Rattles's last concert as Music Director of the LSO in the Barbican Hall and to mark the occasion he chose to conduct one of his personal favourite pieces: Turangalîla Symphonie, and to be joined by two soloists that he have been associated with him and the work over many years, this promised to be an evening to remember. We were not disappointed. The concert began with Ces belles années... a work by Betsy Jolas who enrolled in Messiaen's class at the Paris Conservatoire and succeeded Messiaen as Professor of Analysis in 1975. Ces belles années... is written for (often exclamatory) soprano - (Faustine de Monès in this performance) and large orchestra, with (like Messiaen) plenty of assorted percussion. Rattle coaxed a myriad of exotic and colourful nuances from said percussion as well as the entire orchestral palette that was clearly appreciated by the near capacity audience including the composer who was in attendance and on her feet at the end not looking anywhere near her 97th year. After an interval and stage reshuffle, Rattle and the LSO launched into the Introduction of Turangalîla with characteristic flare and uninhibited emotion, but this is a work of extremes on all levels and Rattle made the most of the quiet moments and silences such as the flower theme and the sensual love theme that recur throughout the work. Contrast that with the bombastic brassy-ness of the statue theme, the frenetic theme of joy, a keyboard based gamelan and you have a musical romp like no other in the repertoire and the players of the LSO gave their all, in honour of their chief conductor. Since his early days with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle has had an innate sense of tempo for this work unlike some younger conductors who unfortunately let their excitement run riot resulting in a loss of detail and focus. Everything is measured while maintaining a sense of shape and direction making the points of climax and rapture even more intense. Both pianist Peter Donohoe and ondist Cynthia Millar have perhaps notched up more performances than most other soloists that have tackled this work, so together with Rattle and the LSO we really did have the Turangalîla dream team.

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©M Ball

©LSO Mark Allan

TURANGALÎLA SYMPHONIE

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra

Nicholas Collon, conductor, William Bracken, piano, Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot.

Barbican Hall, London. 23rd November 2022

 

As Edward Bhesania states in his concise but informed programme notes, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie remains ‘one of the great milestones’ of 20th –century orchestral music. However, after the first performance in 1949 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein and a few follow up performances in America and Europe, it’s taken a good half a century for the work to become a staple repertoire piece, not least of course by the rarity of Ondes Martenot players globally. Over the past 20 years, younger orchestras have taken up the challenge, some to great acclaim including the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Junge Deutsche Philharmonic and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and now, among those at the top must surely be the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra. Their performance on the 23rd November under the assured guidance of Nicholas Collon really ‘raised the roof ‘ of the Barbican Hall. There was no cutting back on Messiaen’s stipulated resources, full strings including 10 double basses and full percussion line up that certainly didn’t hold back in the climaxes. That said, Collon also coaxed the more delicate timbres to great effect for example the ‘flower theme’ in the woodwind and the caressing ‘love theme’ in the 6th movement, ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. This movement also produced some fine thoughtful piano work from postgraduate student William Bracken who thoroughly immersed himself in the part and playing from memory created a sense of drama and occasion throughout. Cynthia Millar continued to provided an innate sense of balance and clarity to the Ondes Martenot role and judging by her beaming smile during the lengthy applause at the end, clearly enjoys working with the younger generation on a work that has been so close to her heart for many years.

I would have preferred to see the vibraphone, celeste and keyed glockenspiel in front of the stage behind the piano thereby creating a tightly knit ‘gamelan’ section that Messiaen was keen on.

Of course this orchestra has not had the historical experience of working together as a seasoned unit and there were a couple of rough edges, but my goodness, they certainly conveyed the exciting exuberance and rhythmic commitment that Messiaen would have loved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©M.Ball

The 23rd November was special because those that could make it earlier were treated to a performance of Harawi in Milton Court Concert Hall just across the road from the Barbican Hall by mezzo soprano, Alexandra Achillea Pouta and pianist, Élisabeth Pion, thus giving us the opportunity to experience two thirds of Messiaen’s Tristan trilogy in one night (the remaining third being Cinq Rechants). What an occasion!  

To say that Harawi is one of Messiaen’s more deeply personal works is an understatement. Essentially it is a work that explores love and death in a somewhat surrealistic world that is influenced by folk music of Peru, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. At the time of writing Messiaen’s personal life was in much turmoil having to cope with his wife’s debilitating and declining illness while at the same time a developing relationship with Yvonne Loriod that would eventually culminate in their marriage in 1962.

This demanding hour long song cycle was treated with the utmost sensitivity from both Alexandra Achillea Pouta and Élisabeth Pion both of whom brought integrity, personality and clear expressive and emotional engagement to the performance.

MB © 11/2022

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Des Canyons aux Étoiles...

Utah Symphony directed by Thierry Fischer.
June 2, 2022. OC Tanner Amphitheater, Springdale, Utah, USA.

From the moment I got news of this concert I knew I had to go. Utah had been on my bucket list of places to visit with Messiaen connections for a very long time so this was an opportunity not to be missed. I arranged a 'package' that would include flights, hire car (essential) and hotel and I set off on a whistle stop five day tour that culminated in the concert at the OC Tanner Amphitheater, Zion Park, Utah.

Prior to the concert I managed to take in all the sites and areas that so inspired Messiaen throughout the writing of Des Canyons aux Étoiles... he described them as 'the most marvellous natural phenomenon in the United States'. Of course, Messiaen's beloved birds feature throughout the work and these are species found in the area as well as elsewhere but there are three movements dedicated to these 'natural phenomenon' that are Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park. So with trusty GPS and hire car I found my way to all these sites and walked in the footsteps of Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod who, in 1972 was surely as awe struck as I was on this occasion. It is one thing seeing these places in books and photos but one really has to be there in person to fully appreciate the immensity, the striking shapes and above all, the colours of the rock formations that are truly breathtaking and unique.

The concert on June the 2nd was scheduled to begin at 8.30pm and from 7.30 audience members were shuttled up the winding road from Springdale town to the amphitheater at the foot of the canyon and spot on 8.30, Thierry Fischer appeared and gave a short introduction before the strains of a solo horn set the mood for the first movement Le désert. As is becoming more and more customary, the solo horn was positioned towards the rear of the audience to give a sense of distance and remoteness. Horn player Stefan Dohr gave good time and space for the sound to travel and deflect off the walls of the stage both in this movement and his solo sixth movement 'Appel interstellaire' where, once our ears were accustomed to the acoustic, every dynamic detail was audible. Commissioned in 1971 to celebrate the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence,  Des Canyons aux Étoile... uses a modest orchestra, just 44 players, due to the confined space available at the world premiere in Alice Tully Hall but Messiaen's masterful orchestration draws out the raw power of the subject material with vivid immediacy. The score demands a very high standard of virtuosity from all players and the Utah Symphony under Thierry Fischer certainly delivered on all counts. The work also includes important solo parts for horn (mentioned above), xylorimba (Keith Garrick), glockenspiel (Eric Hopkins) and piano (Jason Hardink) all of their parts consisting almost entirely of bird songs. Both Keith Garrick and Eric Hopkins were superb in their roles and Jason Hardink really took this work under his wing (no pun intended!) and made it his own. Without the hinderance of a score, Hardink conjured the avian choruses admirably in the two solo piano movements (IV-Le Cossyphe D'Heuglin and IX-Le Moqueur polyglotte) and as the ensuing darkness fell on the canyon rocks behind the amphitheater, his sense of naturalism was almost spiritual.

Outdoor musical events are always tricky to mic up and balance successfully but the sound team at OC Tanner did a great job with subtle amplification of all sections of the orchestra except the percussion which, from where I was sitting just got slightly lost at times. Nonetheless, having the backdrop of the canyon that Messiaen so loved and experiencing the Utah sky turn slowly from dusk to black, it really was unforgettably -  From the Canyons to the Stars...

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Cedar Breaks

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Bryce Canyon

13 February 2020. Igor Levit and Markus Hinterhäuser, pianos perform Visions de l'Amen.
Milton Court Hall, Barbican, London
 

This was the second in Igor Levit’s series of concerts as the Barbican featured artist and was the first of two concerts that included works for two pianos. Levit’s partner for Vision de l’Amen was Markus Hinterhäuser.

 

Visions de l’Amen was written in 1943 and first performed in Paris during the Occupation by Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod at the Concert de la Pléiade on May 10 that year. Messiaen made no attempt to divide the material between the two pianos and piano one was consciously written for the pianistic talents of Loriod who, even at a young age was able to juggle musical complexities with ease. So her part was assigned the bells, birdsong, rhythmic canons in several layers and so on and piano two (Messiaen’s role) was to supply the thematic material and emotional power. For almost two decades the work remained the sole domain of composer and pupil until Irén Marik and John Ranck made a recording c.1956 and performed it at the Deepest Valley Theatre, USA in 1965 then the Labèque’s took it on in 1969 under Messiaen's supervision.

Lately of course many couples have ventured into Messiaen’s world of creation, spinning planets, the agony of Jesus and Jugement, desire and consummation, some with variable results it has to be said.

 

Levit and Hinterhäuser began Amen de la Création with suitable solemn majesty and unlike many recent performances by others, tempo was effective and delivered a sense of Time and Eternity. Levit’s double rhythmic pedal carillon pieced the darkness with just enough light and gave us a hint of things to come.

The minim rest had just expired from movement one when Hinterhäuser segued into No.2 Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau – a brutal dance of the planets in octaves that is eventually joined by the swirling rhythmic and polymodal complexities of piano one. Apart from some over pedaling in piano two, tutti was impressive and the relentless energy and exhilaration heightened the drama.

The third Vision, Amen de l’agonie de Jésus focuses on the suffocating confines of the Garden of Gethsemene and Messiaen said of this movement: “God, who’s beyond time…came in order to suffer with us. And I express this in my music…God is above us and still He comes to suffer with us.” This was written at a time when Messiaen’s brother Alain was still in a German prisoner of War camp and his first wife Claire was suffering a debilitating and degenerative mental illness. The music ‘cries’ and shreds the emotions to an almost unbearable degree and the interlocking writing was nuanced and well projected by both performers.

Amen du Désir explores two themes of desire. The first slow, ecstatic and longing of a deep tenderness, the second passionate and explosive. Piano two states the opening love song while a sense of clock time is introduced by piano one quietly chiming octave ‘Ds’ where Levit, with legs astride and making eye contact with members of the audience was somewhat distracting. I found Hinterhäuser’s tone a little harsh at times and Messiaen’s detailed dynamics within the chords failed to convince but Levit’s crystalline accompaniment in the development was sensual and played with ardent warmth. As the movement progressed the playing became a little sullied towards the climaxes spoiling the impression at times.

Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux transports the listener to the angelic sphere beginning with the angels and saints where the music is pure and sparse and phrasing by both pianists was effective and well shaped. Messiaen’s birdsong was still undeveloped in 1943 but he had a clear idea of the birds that would feature here, albeit in a stylized manner. Levit’s birds were not flawless but a sense of joyous freedom pervaded.

Amen du jugement is horrific in character with more bells, this time the ‘bell of evidence’. Both performers created a sense of terror and awe and together with Amen de l’agonie de Jésus these were the most successful of the movements in terms of spiritual energy between the two players.

Again, a quick segue launched us into Amen de la Consommation where the opening tempo was as fast as the closing tempo should have been. There are three clearly defined tempo increments in the movement that are designed to drive the music forward adding ecstatic joy and excitement that brings the work to it’s exuberant conclusion. Instead Levit and Hinterhäuser bulldozed their way through with scant regard for dynamic detail and less for the important articulation in piano one at the ‘Un peu plus vif’.

Visions de l’Amen is a work that requires two souls who are on an equal spiritual plane and have reached that level of intuition that the playing becomes ‘one’. I did not get that impression from this performance that seemed rather workman-like and over reliant on the score.

Levit’s Beethoven is masterful but Levit’s visions were not Messiaen’s Visions.

BBC PROM - 13 28th July 2019

 

Des canyons aux étoiles…

Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Martin Owen (horn)
David Hockings (xylorimba)
Alex Neal (glockenspiel)

BBC Symphony Orchestra Stephen Bryant (leader)
Sakari Oramo, conductor

 

It was with much excitement that I awaited the opening bars of Messiaen’s vision of ‘the resurrected in Paradise’ and ‘the beauties of the earth (its rocks, its birdsong) and the beauties of the physical sky and of the spiritual sky’ as Des canyons aux étoiles… is perhaps the most under-performed of all Messiaen’s orchestral pieces. 
Written for the bicentennial of US independence, it is the longest of Messiaen’s orchestral work (outdoing Turangalîla Symphonie by two movements and about 20 minutes) but using far less forces than the Symphonie – for example, one double bass as opposed to ten and stripped down woodwind and brass. It does, however retain a major part for piano but no Ondes Martenot, instead solo parts for horn, xylorimba and glockenspiel. 
I was not disappointed. The performance remained gripping throughout its 12 movements presenting a vast array of musical colours that conjured the vast desert and rocky imagery of the Utah landscape, and its unique ornithological aviary. 

From the outset of movement one (Le désert), the solitude of the horn solo, scampering scorpions and isolated birdsong immediately drew the listener into Messiaen’s sound world and the almost tinnitus inducing bowed crotales, piccolo and violin harmonics created the deafening silence of the desert.
Colour has always been at the heart of Messiaen’s orchestral writing and the BBCSO delivered a vivid palette of hues throughout guided by the baton-less Sakari Oramo who just needed to take a little more time in the slow eighth movement (Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran) and the final carillon features in movement twelve (Zion Park et la Cité Céleste) to allow the music to breathe and the detailed textures to fully flourish.
Horn soloist Martin Owen took full advantage of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic in Appel interstellaire with well judged pauses and animated communication with the audience. 

The score is peppered with new and experimental (for Messiaen) sounds including the eoliphone (wind machine), geophone (sand machine), cross bridge bowing in the strings and in movement five (Cedar Breaks et le Don de Crainte) a trumpet blowing into the mouthpiece only, creating strange glissandi that straddles the borders of mystery and the comic. Also, Messiaen’s musical alphabet (first used in his Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité) appears several times to spell out the biblical quotations that link the spiritual and physical elements in the work.
The two solo piano movements (Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin – The white-browed robin and Le Moqueur polyglotte – The Mockingbird), were played with unshaken security and clear sense of musical architecture by Nicholas Hodges and the ‘bird’ interplay between piano and glockenspiel (played by Alex Neal) was simply enthralling in Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran. 
David Hockings (xylorimba) is well known for his virtuosity and this was demonstrated laudably in movement eleven (Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama) as well as some enthralling duet work with glockenspiel.
For those audience members who felt they couldn’t quite stay the course, a great opportunity was missed to experience Messiaen’s vision as a whole in this rare and beguiling performance.

©M.Ball

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© M.Ball

Further review: Prom 13

More reviews of Harawi kindly submitted by Nicholas Armfelt

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Review of the the first British performance of Harawi.

Interestingly given by Roy Bywood 'tenor' and John Boorman, piano. February 9th 1953

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Catalogue d'Oiseaux (complete) at Aldeburgh Festival UK 19 June 2016

When news broke several months ago that Pierre-Laurent Aimard would perform Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux at the Aldeburgh Festival in its entirety, not in Messiaen’s written order and in one day from dawn to dusk and beyond, many seasoned concertgoers and Messiaen devotees thought the idea was bonkers and it would never work. How wrong they would be with the whole day sold out and over subscribed soon after booking opened. 

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Roger Muraro and Michel Beroff are three pianists most closely associated with Messiaen’s piano music and all were pupils of Yvonne Loriod and the couple often referred to them as their (musical) children. So having Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival) in the driving seat for this special event meant that there was no doubt whatsoever that it would not work.
Aimard chose to place the pieces of the Catalogue by the time of day associated with the bird songs, so the concerts were presented thus: 4.30am Dawn – 1.00pm – Afternoon – 7.30pm – Dusk and 11.00pm – Night.

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4.30am 'Dawn' Concert Hall Cafe. ©Sam Murray-Sutton

I have to say that after performing in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the previous evening, it was somewhat of a struggled to get myself up and arrive in Snape for the first concert at 4.30am. (Hardy twitchers were at the reed beds at 3.30 and before the sun rose).  However, any sense of fatigue soon dissolved as we the audience took our seats in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall Cafe facing the window and looking out on the reed beds as the sun rose to the strains of Messiaen’s Traquet Stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear), La Bouscarle (Cetti’s Warbler) and Traquet Rieur (Black Wheatear) all mingling with the Suffolk dawn chorus. 
At 1.00pm in the Britten Studio the ‘Afternoon’ concert revealed Le Buse Variable (Buzzard), L’alouette Calandrelle (Short-toed Lark), Le Loriot (Golden Oriole) and Le Merle Bleu (Blue Rock Thrush).  The 7.30pm ‘Dusk’ concert was presented at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve outside on Whin Hill with Les Chocards des Alpes (Alpine Chough), Le Merle de Roche (Rock Thrush) and Le Courlis Cendre (Curlew).  Finally back at the Britten Studio, ‘Night’ concluded with La Chouette Hulotte (Tawny Owl), L’Alouette Lulu (Woodlark) and La Rousserolle Effarvate (Reed Warbler).

 

What was most striking throughout the day was Aimard’s complete sense of focus (not to mention stamina) in the three locations and how each acoustic space could respond to Messiaen’s aural ‘paintings’. These works are not merely transcribed songs of the titled bird but rather their entire natural habitat and the relationship with other birds within that habitat are all represented, so natural phenomena such as tranquil lakes and rushes, rugged mountain terrain, crashing waves of the sea, howling wind etc. all form part of the canvas. 
To present the Catalogue over a 19 hour period is impressive enough but to perform with such nuanced playing, emotional power and unshaken security was just astounding.  Le Merle Bleu (Blue Rock Thrush) was simply breath-taking and left me speechless with its glittering and fluid passage work and sense of drama whereas La Chouette Hulotte (Tawny Owl) truly sent shivers up the spine with its depiction of ‘darkness, fear and beating heart’ with a call that at times sounds like (in Messiaen’s words) ‘a child being murdered’. A long way from the peaceful setting of La Bouscarle (Cetti’s Warbler) heard both by Aimard’s poised and piquant playing and ‘live’ by the bird itself in the reed beds at Snape. 

 

Presenting the 7.30pm ‘Dusk’ concert at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve outside on Whin Hill was a risky masterstroke given the unpredictability of the English summer but one that paid off. Yes there was a vexing wind that kept Aimard’s page-turner on her toes but the effect and musical impression was magical. Special mention must go to the BBC. Musical events in the open air are notoriously difficult to control in both volume and sound quality, but the BBC team got it just right. Having Tom McKinney announce throughout the day was also fitting as he has, (according to the booklet notes) been bird watching all of his life. The Festival book was lavish but just a shame that Messiaen’s descriptions were not printed in full for each piece.
In between the concerts, other events took place in and around Snape including Nigel Paterson’s film: Dawn Chorus: The Sounds of Spring, a Festival church service, a concert by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge at Blythburgh Church, an RSPB Walk and an illuminating talk by Christopher Dingle (Messiaen specialist and musicologist) and Nigel Collar (ornithologist).

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1.00pm 'Afternoon' Britten Studio ©Matt Jolly

For many years Yvonne Loriod’s account of this work had remained definitive, but Pierre-Laurent Aimard took it to a higher plane setting a tough benchmark for pianists such as those attending his master-classes during the previous week.
It was Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s final year as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival and thanks must be given for the diversity of art and music that he brought to Suffolk over eight years but perhaps none more so than that of the 19th June 2016 where the entire landscape and natural beauty of Suffolk played a significant part in Messiaen’s and Aimard’s vision. 

©M.Ball

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7.30pm 'Dusk' RSPB Minsmere © Matt Jolly 

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11.00pm 'Night' Britten Studio, Snape. © Matt Jolly 

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Review of the all-Messiaen concert. St. Mary's Church Penzance, Cornwall. UK 4th June 2016.
Featuring Malcolm Ball (ondes Martenot) and Peter Humphrey (piano), with Nigel Wicken (organ).

 

1. 5 Leçons de Solfege (1934) Nos.l,2,3,5,4. Ondes & piano.
2. O sacrum convivium (1937) soprano (Laura Nicholas) &Nigel Wicken (organ)
3. Two piano pieces played by Peter Humphrey: La colombe (1929)
and Rondeau (1943).
4. Le merle noir (1952) flute & piano - (Pippa Drummond, flute; Paul Comeau piano).
5. Feuillets inedits (unpublished pages) ondes & piano.
6. L'alouette lulu (1957) piano- (Peter Humphrey)
7. Vocalise (1935) Ondes & piano
8. Premiere communion de la Vierge (1944) piano.
9. Oraison des belles eaux (1937) Ondes & piano.
10. Joie et clarte des corps glorieux (1939), Nigel Wicken (organ)
***
This all-Messiaen concert was a unique musical event, and it was applauded with great enthusiasm by an audience of over 70
people. A glance at the items in the programme with their dates shows that these are works from the earlier half of the
composer's career, the latest in date being L'alouette lulu composed in 1957 when Messiaen was aged 49.
The concert included authorized arrangements for ondes Martenot and piano along with some other fine works that have
hitherto seldom been performed. None of the pieces is particularly obscure or difficult for the listener. Indeed the
intention was for this to be a concert of attractive and accessible music, much of it extraordinarily beautiful - music
that deserves to be heard more often. Many people will know of Messiaen's use of the Ondes Martenot in three of his greatest works: Trois petites liturgies de la Presence divine, Turangalila, and Saint François d'Assise.
The pieces in this concert, however, were adaptations of the high melodic line of some smaller works, pieces originally written
with pedagogical intent - sight-reading exercises or examination tests. In their modest way they often exemplify Messiaen's
characteristic melodies, harmonies and rhythms. What is remarkable is their quality, and also their delightful deftness
and charm.
The 5 Leçons de Solfege (1934) for ondes and piano formed an ideal start to the concert. These sight-reading pieces,
originally for soprano but readily adaptable for flute or for ondes, are easy on the ear, some sprightly, others with a mildly
melancholy and wistful charm. We were not challenged with any of the loud swoopings and whoopings characteristic of the Ondes
in parts of the large orchestral works. This evening we experienced the quieter and ethereal qualities.
O sacrum convivium (1937), beautifully sung by the soprano Laura Nicholas accompanied by Nigel Wicken on the organ. This
version is rarely performed, though the a capella version is often sung by cathedral choirs. This was a spellbinding and very moving performance.
The four piano solos, admirably played by Peter Humphrey, were all remarkably different from one another. La colombe (1929)
was delicately evocative; Rondeau (1943) came across as exciting and dazzling with a delightful lightness of touch; La premiere
communion de la Vierge
(1944) communicated a beautiful and deeply spiritual experience. L'alouette lulu (1957) was wonderful:
velvet-dark chords representing night, magical high descending trills of the woodlark, the more percussive brilliance of the
nightingale.
Le merle noir (1952) for flute (Pippa Drummond) and piano (Paul Comeau) was sensational in its virtuosity and brilliance.
The audience was bowled over by it. Of the pieces for ondes and piano, which constituted the bulk of the concert, it was the Oraison des belles eaux that built up to the most sustained intensity. Malcolm Ball and Peter Humphrey achieved an extraordinarily subtle, well-graduated, and compelling melodic and chordal progression. The emotion was overwhelming.

 

The concert concluded with Joie et clarte des corps glorieux (1939) played on the organ by Nigel Wicken using the exact stops
and registrations that are indicated in the score. The "joy and radiance" resounded in the church, an exhilarating and fitting culmination.
Nicholas Armfelt (June 2016)

Turangalîla Symphonie

 

Simón Bolívar Symphony  Orchestra of Venezuela. Gustavo Dudamel conductor, Yuja Wang, piano, Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot Royal Festival Hall London. 16th January 2016

 

Some might say there was something more dazzling than the Lumiere Light Festival showing over London on the 16th of January and that was the appearance of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel at London’s Southbank performing Messiaen’s mighty Turangalîla Symphonie. Messiaen loved to ‘dazzle’ and we were certainly treated to an aural and visual feast from the moment piano soloist Yuja Wang strode onto the Royal Festival Hall stage sporting a sparkling micro mini dress with matching shoes only out shone by her dazzling and scintillating performance of this quasi piano concerto. Ms. Wang is well known for her concerto performances of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich etc. but not later 20th century works such as this. She may not have this music completely in her bones as Pierre-Laurant Aimard and indeed she seemed a little over reliant on the score at times, but she played the most demanding passages with unshaken security and a kaleidoscopic dynamic sense. This was particularly evident in movement 6 (Jardin du sommeil d’amour) where Messiaen had just started to develop his birdsong writing. Her delicate touch and ‘improvisatory’ approach allowed Messiaen’s birds to flit effortlessly over a cushion of strings and Ondes Martenot melody. As attractive and, again, dazzling her six inch stiletto heels and three inch platform shoes were, they did impair her pedaling at times where some resonances were abruptly cut short and not fully controlled. This was a minor glitch in an otherwise quite staggering performance.
 

Turangalîla Symphonie is new fair for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and Dudamel added to their repertoire in 2015. This team with Yuja Wang and Cynthia Millar have performed the work in Barcelona, Luxembourg, London and will play in Cologne on the 24th January. The work is not new to ondist Cynthia Millar, having played it countless times over many years now. Her performance here demonstrated just how well attuned her ear is to tonal and dynamic balance of her instrument with the rest of the orchestra. 
 

Dudamel stuck rigidly to Messiaen’s orchestral numbers that are inflated in all departments including 10 double basses. I have heard this piece where reductions were made and it really spoils the effect, balance and colour, but not so on this occasion. He conducted with precision and passion coaxing out the delicate ‘flower motif’ played by woodwinds, contrasting this with the burnished white-hot fortissimo ‘statue theme’ in the brass. He also stuck well to Messiaen’s revised tempi with just movement 5 (Joie du sang des étoiles) taking a few bars to settle. I felt the tam tam was a little cautious in the climaxes and the staggered positioning of the metallic instruments (vibraphone, celeste and keyed glock) did not create the intended gamelan effect that Messiaen wanted.
Bruce Hodges’ progamme notes were rather too generalised and contained a few minor inaccuracies. He alluded to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde but failed to place Turangalila within Messiaen’s own Tristan trilogy (Harawi, Turangalîla Symphonie and Cinq Rechants).
This said, the ‘force’ was certainly with Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the vitality and energy that the orchestra is famous for was 95% evident. I reserve 100% for the performance given by the National Youth Orchestra of GB under Sir Andrew Davis in a 2001 BBC Prom.

© Malcolm Ball

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BBC Proms Friday 7th August 2015  Royal Albert Hall, London.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) Orchestration realised by Christopher Dingle (b. 1971)
Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (Oiseau tui) (1987/8, orch.2013/14) world premiere.

‘On either side of the river is the tree of life…’ (Revelations 22:2) ‘Bless the Lord, all birds of the air’ (Daniel 3:80)

 

For those of us who felt that Peter Hill’s recent and exciting discovery of the piano piece ‘La fauvette passerinette’ was the last piece of Messiaen’s manuscripts to see a new light of day since the composers’ death, imagine our thrill to hear of this 4 minute gem that emerged from the work desk in Paris! This said, many scholars and enthusiasts have known about ‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (Oiseau tui)’ as Chris Dingle pointed out in the highly illuminating Proms Extra talk that was shared with Peter Hill. Messiaen planned for a pair of movements in ‘Éclairs sur l’Au-delà…’ that featured the tui bird from New Zealand and the lyrebird from Australia. The lyrebird remained in the finished work but Messiaen, reluctantly decided to omit the tui from Éclairs. He had, however, written all the music for the movement in a three stave short score and characteristically approved this by marking ‘Bien’ to note its completion.

 

Thanks to Peter Hill who was granted a copy from Messiaen’s widow Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, Chris Dingle set about the daunting task of orchestrating the movement. 
It would be very hard to find another as well qualified as Chris to undertake such a task with his boundless knowledge of Messiaen’s final works (especially Éclairs) and a thorough understanding of the orchestral palette used by Messiaen.

 

The song of the tui is remarkable for its vast vocal range as well as being a great imitator of, not just other birds, but also many environmental sounds it hears such as percussive knocks and clicks, swooping glissandi and even the human voice. As one who has been fortunate enough to see and hear this bird first hand (on Tiritiri Matangi Island NZ) I can confirm it is one of the most vocally adept of all the avian species.
The result is a 4-minute virtuosic tour de force in all the orchestral departments. Messiaen’s beloved trio of marimba, xylorimba and xylophone featured prominently and executed with great aplomb by the percussionists of the BBC Philharmonic. The tui’s song flits around the orchestra of multiple woodwind, brass and strings at great speed and dazzling metrical complexity often culminating (and concluding) by ‘tumbling’ onto three cellos.
The wood blocks are featured in an almost concerto-like capacity and there are smacks of ‘Oiseaux exotiques’ with repeated tutti stabs, but as Chris Dingle pointed out, the music contains clearly recognisable ‘Messiaen’ but at the same time colours and traits new to his birdsong writing.

 

And it is ‘colour’ that really dazzled us in the Royal Albert Hall this evening by craftsman of 20th (and 21st) century composer/orchestrators.
Mozart kicked off the first half with the not too often heard Idomeneo – ballet music and although not 20th century, Messiaen considered Mozart a great colourist who’s influence remained with him throughout his life. 
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave a glittering and moving account of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as the breath-taking Etude de concert by Pierné by way of an encore, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, Colin Matthews’s delicate and translucent orchestration of Oiseaux tristes from the piano suite Miroirs by Ravel and Ravel’s own orchestral masterpiece La Valse concluding the proceedings.
The BBC Philharmonic was on top form in all departments driven by the effervescent Nicholas Collon who coaxed out all the subtle nuances in this feast of nature and colour.

© M.Ball

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Peter Hill and Christopher Dingle
©M.Ball 

Turangalila Symphonie 
Philharmonia Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, Ondes Martenot. 
Royal Festival Hall London. 28th May 2015

The last time I reviewed the Philharmonia performing Turangalîla Symphonie was back in 2008, Messiaen’s centenary year when they performed the work in sunny Southend-on-Sea, Essex (see below) and the only change in personnel in this performance was ondist Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (Jacques Tchamkerten was in the ondes chair in Southend).

 

This was the final concert in the Philharmonia’s series “City of Light – Paris, 1900–1950” and if you want to go out with a bang then Turangalîla is the ideal choice. But before the mighty Symphonie, we were treated to some sonorous delights of a different kind beginning with Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute and indeed it could be said that the orchestra ‘grew’ throughout the evening with Simon Coles alone on stage followed by the rarely heard La damoiselle élue for female chorus, mezzo and soprano solo and orchestra, then Turangalîla where the RFH stage was bursting at the seams.

 

From the opening bars of the Introduction it was clear that Messiaen’s ‘baby’ was in safe hands as of course it has been with Salonen for many years now. The orchestral colours so important for Messiaen were clearly defined here and exquisitely balanced throughout. The keyboards (celeste, keyed glock and vibraphone) were positioned correctly at the front of the stage but sadly the mallets used on the vibraphone were too soft to convey the clanging gamelan effect that Messiaen intended.

Salonen’s tempi were well judged throughout but for (and this was the case in 2008) the 9th movement where Messiaen revised the tempo from quaver 100 to 80. Salonen produced a rather jaunty jog rather than the mysterious strange and ethereal atmosphere created by ondes, percussion, keyboards and 13 solo strings. If the tempo is too fast the timbral detail and rhythmic personalities are lost or at least thrown into relief.
 

This aside, Salonen and the orchestra produced an epic performance with soloists Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing entirely from memory with great command and expressive intensity and Pierre-Laurent Aimard setting the whole piece alight with his stunning virtuosity and consistent engagement befitting in this glittering finale to the ‘City of Light’.

© MB 

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Messiaenfestival Orgelpark
22 February 2015
Het Orgelpark, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Fête des Belles Eaux for 6 Ondes Martenot’s
Fabienne Martin, Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire, Philippe Arrieus, Haruka Ogawa, Dominique Kim, Augustin Viard.

 

Quatuor pour la fin du temps
Thomas Dieltjens, piano
Benjamin Dieltjens, clarinet
Aki Sauliere, violin
Raphael Bell, cello

 

This concert was the culmination of a Messiaen festival organised by Johan Luijmes, (artistic director) and his team at the colourful and attractive Orgelpark venue in Amsterdam. Previous concerts in the series featured such luminaries as Ralph van Raat performing Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus, Berry van Berkum performing Les Corps Glorieux and Musici Nederlands Kamerkoor Klaas Stok with Marcel Verheggen performing Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle, O Sacrum convivium, L’Ascension, Cinq Rechants, Le Banquet céleste
Although I was unable to attend the entire festival I was determined to make the trip to Amsterdam on Sunday the 22nd to see and hear this performance of Fête des Belles Eaux by ‘Vecteur Ondes’ (Fabienne Martin, Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire, Philippe Arrieus, Haruka Ogawa, Dominique Kim and Augustin Viard). This piece is so rarely heard live that any performance that is only a short plan trip away is most definitely worthwhile.

Messiaen was one of 20 composers commissioned to write a piece in 1937 for a festival of sound, water and light (a ‘son et lumière’) that took place along the river Seine in Paris and after seeing and hearing Maurice Martenot’s new electronic invention in 1928 he opted for a piece featuring 6 Ondes Martenot’s. The performance began after dark where fireworks in the sky were mirrored by jets of water combined with the harmonies of the music.

Nowadays we settle for the six Ondists seated in a semicircle in the comfort of a concert hall, as was the case on the 22nd. The virtuosic first Ondes part (the role originally played by Ginette Martenot the inventors’ sister and later Jeanne Loriod) was superbly executed by Fabienne Martin who coaxed the most expressive qualities and emotional intensity from the instrument in movements 4 and 6. The musical material for these two movements later found its way into the Quatuor. Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire guided the overall performance clearly and concisely resulting in excellent ensemble and dynamic expression throughout. 
Those of you familiar with the oak coloured wooden cabinet style that Maurice Martenot produced together with the eye catching lotus leaf shaped ‘palme’ loudspeaker would have been slightly disappointed as all the performers used the Ondea, a modern version of the original that has no such ‘art nouveau’ qualities. This is not a problem, as the sound quality and characteristics of the Ondea is very close to that of the original Martenot instrument and of course much more reliable, but being a little old fashioned, I just like the aesthetic of the original instrument.
However, the metallique speakers (a resonating gong) were used to create the highly effective shimmering in the 6th movement. Also, it wasn’t until 2003 that the new score of Fête des Belles Eaux was published and the timbre registrations were written for the series 7 Ondes Martenot that only includes 3 speakers: Principle, Reverberation and Metallique (D1,D2 and D3). 
This was a memorable performance of the highest quality that clearly demonstrated the organic, human expressive quality of these instruments that have stood the test of time and sets it aside from modern day synthesizers.

The second half of the concert was given over to a scintillating performance of Quatuor pour la fin du temps perhaps Messiaen’s most performed work. If this is the case, then it is still extraordinary how every performance brings something different to the work. Benjamin Dieltjens, Aki Sauliere, Raphael Bell performed their respective ‘solo’s’ with rapt intensity all underpinned by Thomas Dieltjens’ secure, no nonsense pianism that totally captivated the audience throughout. A true Amsterdam standing ovation for both performances was thoroughly deserved. 

As an extra ‘treat’ there was a running video of an interview with Messiaen and Dutch maestro Reinbert de Leew centred on a performance of La Transfiguration de notre-Seigneur Jésus Christ – what more could we ask for?
All thanks to Johan Luijmes and Karlijne Swart for their tireless efforts and hospitality.

©M.Ball

St. François d’Assise in Madrid. 13th July 2011

Instalación: Emilia e Ilya Kabakov 

Disposición escénica: Giuseppe Frigeni 

Figurinista: Robby Duiveman 

Iluminador Jean Kalman 

Director del coro: Andrés Máspero 

El angel: Camilla Tilling 

Saint François: Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester 

El leproso: Michael König 

Frère Léon: Wiard Withold 

Frère Massée: Tom Randle 

Frère Éllie: Gerhard Siegel 

Frère Bernard: Victor von Halem 

Frère Sylvestre: Vladimir Kapshuk 

Coro Titular del Teatro Real y Coro de la 

Generalitat Valenciana 

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden - Freiburg

Musical Director: Sylvain Cambreling

 

Since the historical Paris premier of St François d’Assise in 1983 there appears an evolution of two particular trends when staging this immense musical epic. On the one hand directors stick pretty closely to Messiaen’s sometimes detailed production notes while on the other hand some stray so far that if it were not for the music one might sometimes wonder if we’re watching the same work.

Teatro Real’s Madrid offering most definitely falls into the former catagory. Madrid’s artistic director Gerard Mortier continues his ‘dream’ of staging St Francois wherever he goes.

 

Directing team Emilia and Ilya Kabakov brought their gigantic tilting dome first seen in the Ruhr Triennale production of 2003 to the Madrid Arena (this and the musical forces were deemed too large to house in Teatro Real’s theatre at opera square in the centre of Madrid). 

 

Adapted sports spaces such as the arena are never ideal for ‘acoustic’ musical events even with the large forces employed by Messiaen. The orchestra and choir were reasonably well focused and balanced but some solo roles that were played out on the raised bridge platform to the front and sides struggled with projection at times in particular Gerhard Siegel as Brother Elías. 

 

Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester was convincingly immersed throughout as St François and performed with rapt intensity at times. Tom Randle is always a pleasure to see in the role of Brother Masseo bringing a sense of spontaneity to the part although he had considerably less to do in this production than the Nederlandse Opera where he last appeared in the role. Camilla Tilling is by far my favourite Angel. She is familiar with this part now and one is totally transported by her firmly centered non-operatic sound with a purity found nowhere else. Her ‘Noh’-like movements are exactly as Messiaen wished and this is true of the entire production which was meditative rather than sensational – minimal rather than spectacular. Messiaen’s sense of time and tempo are often hard to grasp but musical director Sylvain Cambreling guided the 170 odd performers with security and expressive understanding.

 

The expanded SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden- Freiberg produced some fabulous textures and colours. However, discipline and etiquette was less impressive with members of the brass section holding conversations and even coming and going off stage became a distraction at times. 

 

The static ‘stained glass’ dome added coloured lighting throughout  -sometimes changing imperceptibly. This plus the candle-lit lighting in the choir gave the whole space an atmospheric spiritual feel. ‘Static’ is the adjective that keeps surfacing in relation to this production and at times one just wished for slightly more animation from characters or stage direction particularly in the Sermon to the Birds where Messiaen’s music is so highly animated we, the audience just had to use a little too much of our own imagination.

A huge bird cage completed the stage design with live doves that appeared to respond to light intensity and became animated when lit and less so when in shade. It was therefore a shame that they were not fully lit in the final 2 minuets of the opera – it would have been heart warming to see them joyously flapping to the illuminated brilliance of the final C major chord!

It was also a shame that some of the Spanish opera going clientele could not stay the course as they would surely have been spiritually rewarded at the end of this highly successful production that may never be seen again in Spain for many years.

© Malcolm Ball

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St. François in Amsterdam

Saint François d’Assise. De Nederlandse Opera, Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam. 1-6-2008.

 

“Know the joy of the blessed by gentleness of colour and melody…and may there be opened for thee the secrets of glory!”

These are the words sung by the Angel in Messiaen’s ‘musical spectacle’ (his description) and unlike some recent stagings of Saint François d’Assise, Der Nederlanse Opera production focuses on the words colour and melody with Pierre Audi and his production team ever mindful of Messiaen’s intentions.

From the opening scene (La Croix) the lighting and set designs are inventive and appropriate without us having to delve into the recesses of our minds to work out what is going on.
The huge expanded Residentie Orkest sprawled from the rear of the stage with musical director Ingo Metzmacher plying his craft from centre stage with great authority and control throughout and thus the orchestra became a genuine character in the opera. Remarkably this sonic powerhouse of 100 plus musicians never once over-powered the voices, a testament to the genius of Messiaen’s orchestration, the sensitivity of Ingo Metzmacher and the acoustics of the Muziektheater.

 

Camilla Tilling (L’Ange) gave a compelling performance both vocally and theatrically. The 5th tableau (L’Ange musicien) in particular left the entire Muziektheater audience utterly breathless and mesmerised with her exquisite vocal line complemented by the ‘other-worldliness’ of the three Ondes Martenot’s and moving with the elegance and ritual of a Noh actor fulfilled Messiaen’s every wish.

Angelo Figus’s costumes reflected Messiaen’s vision appropriately without compromise or over indulgence and only the Leper costume lacked a little impact in terms of repulsiveness. 

Rod Gilfry (Saint François) delivered just the right amount of humility when needed in this mammoth role and despite a troublesome throat at times managed to portray vocally the Saint’s despair, anguish and joy to great effect.

All the Fransiscan Brothers responded well to their individual characterization’s, however it was Tom Randle (Frère Massée), who is depicted as rather naïve and innocent, was in danger of ‘stealing the show’ with his witty interactions and mannerisms. Indeed the one ‘masterstroke’ of Pierre Audi’s production was to introduce a group of children in the ‘Sermon to the birds’ where Randle really came into his own with the children clearly enjoying the playful banter.  For me this scene communicated and worked far better than any ornithological wildlife film footage ever can.

Great use was made of the space and various levels in the Muziektheater with minimal but effective scene changes smoothly articulated. 

The choir of De Nederlandse Opera were really made to feel an integral part of the production and not just a static sound source at the back of the stage. Their disciplined and well drilled performance driven by Martin Wright.

Pierre Audi has brought Saint François d’Assise into the 21st century while at the same time retaining the spirit of Messiaen’s intentions and has succeeded in highlighting the human and spiritual world of Saint François that made the 5 hours of this opera seem like a celestial ‘moment’.

©Malcolm Ball

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