Tuesday 30 July 2019

Shards of sound: Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Étoiles at the Proms

Nicolas Hodges
Nicolas Hodges
Messiaen Des Canyons aux étoiles; Nicolas Hodges, Martin Owen, David Hockings, Alex Neal, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 28 July 2019
Mightily rewarding, one of Messiaen's greatest scores makes a rare appearance at the Proms

For Prom 13, Nicolas Hodges (piano), Martin Owen (horn), David Hockings (xylorimba), Alex Neal (glockenspiel) and BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Sakari Oramo performed Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 28 July 2019. Colin Clarke was there to cover it for Planet Hugill.

Messiaen’s great sonic vista, Des Canyons aux étoiles, was written between 1971 and 1974. It is one of his greatest scores, inspired by the deserts of Utah (and, in the seventh movement, Brice Canyon in particular). The composer’s preoccupation with the spiritual nature of birdsong is a thread that runs through the score, while his pronounced religiosity finds an outlet in taking inspiration from the inscription on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast in the third movement, “Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles …”. The scoring is for solo piano, horn, xylorimba and glockenspiel with an orchestra possessed of huge kitchen department, including tubular bells, various types of chimes (glass, wood, finger), and six temple blocks. There is also a “geophone,” a large, flat drum filled with lead beads and rotates: the idea is that it sounds like shifting sand, and it really is remarkable. The string section, though, is small ( our attention is directed to the winds (such an important part of Messiaen’s armoury: think of Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum of 1964, for example). The work’s exploration of birdsong may also remind us of Reveil des Oiseaux (1953) and, of course, the huge compendium that is Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58).

Inter-work correspondences aside, Des Canyons has its own unique place. It requires a large space like the Albert Hall to resonate, and soloists who can link into Messiaen’s thought processes. Rarely as sensual as Turangalîla, it reminds us, perhaps, that there is an objectivity to the overwhelming natural beauty of the Earth (the canyons) and of space (the stars).

Both Martin Owen and Nicolas Hodges shone. Owen, the BBC Symphony Orchestra Principal Horn, was a superb interpreter, outshining the two names I have heard live in this piece: Michael Thompson and Nobuaki Fukukawa (the latter excerpted, at the Wigmore Hall in a lunchtime recital, January 2019). Owen’s solo movement, “Appel interstellaire,” delivered from memory, was notable for his dramatic delivery as well as the ease with which he negotiated the score, and its various effects. The physically mobile aspect was an integral part of the experience; perhaps he could also have left some of the phrases to resonate longer into the Albert Hall’s furthest reaches before taking up the melodic thread again. There is an added aspect to this, in that this movement was originally a stand-alone piece written to commemorate the composer Jean-Pierre Guézac (1934-71), and an aspect of that remembering must surely be the spaces between. But the drama of the highest note, screamed out, the astonishing control of the flutter-tonguing, the rapid figurations (indicated by a squiggly line in the score) with half-closed valves: all this was remarkable.

Pianist Nicolas Hodges, who specialises in contemporary music and who discussed his musical world and outlook ahead of this performance in a fascinating podcast here, was an exemplary soloist. There was subtlety in his reading and a perfect delivery of Messiaen’s gestural writing, ever responsive to tone, nuance, and the the expressive Affekt of Messiaen’s carefully wrought intervallic structures and shapes. Both David Hockings and Alex Neal were superb in their roles (xylorimba and glockenspiel, respectively). One should also perhaps mention the contributions of the leader, Stephen Bryant, demonstrating astonishing control of harmonics, and perhaps also the clarion Principal Trumpet of the BBCSO, Christopher Hart. But then, it felt as if the BBCSO had found home turf and the entire contingent of players was energised.

Marshalling all of this together was Sakari Oramo. This was not the longest of performances of Des Canyons aux Étoiles by any means, and what lingered in the memory most were the more shocking moments – the shards of sound in “Brice Canyon et les rochers rouge-rouge,” for example, where the synaesthetic composer reacts viscerally to the rock colours of red, orange and violet. And yet, the silences, such an integral part of the music, spoke volumes in the tender, blissfully restful “Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Andébaran,” where the music often sighs itself into nothingness in a supplicatory gesture. Punctuating, then garlanding , percussion, later joined by flute, seem to take the music off into the furthest reaches of space, and perhaps beyond. All this was expertly managed: it is easy to hear the links to “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” from Turangalîla that Paul Griffiths rightly points out in his excellent booklet note. Oramo also ensured that the tricky penultimate movement, “Omeo, leiothrix, elepaio, shama” (birds from Hawaii, China, India and Sri Lanka) held together effectively. In the two final movements, particularly, Hockings and Neal shone, the glockenspiel sometimes like an avian musicbox.

It was a shame to see a repeated audience exodus at each significant break in the score, especially given the low audience levels from the off. Des Canyons is no easy listen, but it is a mightily rewarding one if only one perseveres. The piece was not heard at the Proms until 1989 (David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta) and thereafter only once more before the present concert (George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern in 2004).

The programme is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.
Reviewed by Colin Clarke

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