Do you miss Messiaen? He’s the composer who saves the planet – Slipped DiscSlipped Disc

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Norman Lebrecht

October 29, 2021

Alastair Macaulay talks about last night’s concert in the Philharmonia’s London series:

Singing birds 2021.x.29

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s fall season title at the Royal Festival Hall, “Human / Nature: Music for a Precious Planet,” contains several ideas. One is ecological: music can evoke subjects that deserve to be saved from an environmental disaster. Another is the idea that the tension (and / or harmony) between humans and nature can be the subject of works of art. (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony arrives later in the series, on December 2.)

A third idea is even more fundamental: that music can express subjects other than itself. But can he? Stravinsky in his Autobiography declared: “For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything, be it a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature. , etc. been an inherent property of music.

Even though we don’t agree with Stravinsky here, it is helpful to listen to music that expresses or addresses the physical order while primarily expressing the music itself. The concert on Thursday 28 at the Royal Festival Hall was devoted to twentieth century French music written during Stravinsky’s lifetime. Although his three works – Ravel’s Mirrors (1904-1904), Messiaen’s Awakening of the Birds (1953), Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suite n ° 2 (1909-1912) – were all chosen because of their representations from the natural world, one could also hear how each was simply investigating music for its own good.

The conductor was Thomas Sondergard, replacing Pablo Heras-Casado; the pianist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Ravel’s Mirrors, a work he originally composed for solo piano, has five parts: the third and fourth were given in the orchestral arrangements he composed, but the other three – which he never orchestrated, although others have done so in her name – were performed by Aimard in their original piano versions. Whether he writes for piano or orchestra, this is Ravel the sound explorer, boldly tracing new acoustic possibilities, combinations, resonances.

In Noctuelles, the first of Mirrors, Aimard immediately captivates with clusters of semi-melodic notes, often high and rapid, interspersed with descending staccato; and in Sad Birds he made the insistent repetition of small notes fascinating. Yes, we hear the butterfly in the Noctuids and the bird in the Sad Birds, but it’s not really this evocative side of the music that is the most interesting here.

How good it is to hear Ravel the experimenter: Aimard plays the piano like a scientist in a laboratory. The same was true when Sondergard conducted A Barque on the Ocean and Alborado del gracioso, the Third and Fourth Mirrors, though Ravel’s brilliant mastery of orchestral tones fell far short of the pianistic sound. When Aimard closes the suite with La Vallée des cloches, the astonishing tinkling of the music certainly says what they say about the bells, but what is most radical here is the persistence of sustained chords (so that the piano becomes its own echo chamber), the repetition of tiny sub-phrases, and the poetic control of diminundi (fade effects).

Messiaen is a composer who divides even among the followers of advanced musical modernism. The critic Charles Rosen called his scores “Saint Francis walking on the birds”; Yet I remember a glorious concert of his organ music after which a young American exclaimed in rapture, “Gee, to think I spent all that money on drugs when I could have had the same.” experience with Messiaen ”. As a representation of birdsong, his Réveil, despite a wealth of detail, is only intermittently captivating. As a pure musical form, however, Aimard and Sondergard made it fascinating, especially in passages of greater rhythmic multiplicity (where the individual avian voices merge into the polyphony).

The concert ended with the second suite of Daphnis by Ravel. Although many of us know it as long-time friends, it is full of musical miracles whose brilliance and meaning are revealed differently over the course of successive listenings. With the Philharmonia and the Sondergard, it became a study in both time and timelessness: Ravel sometimes flooded the senses while apparently stopping the pulse, but in other sequences nature itself seemed be a giant heartbeat.

In perhaps the most sublime paradox of the score, the strings gently play metric pizzicati, while the melodic line of the flute solo still pours out – like a bird song – with no obvious yardstick. We become aware of both time and its suspension, of the world and of the soul.


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