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Olivier Messiaen La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ

Philharmonia Orchestra; Philharmonia Voices; BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kent Nagano - Conductor; Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Piano; Soloists from the Pilharmonia Orchestra: Kenneth Smith - flute; Mark van de Wiel - clarinet; Karen Stephenson - cello; David Corkhill - percussion; Kevin Hathaway, percussion, Peter Fry, percussion.

Royal Festival Hall, 16th October 2008

This choral cantata of colossal proportions was composed by Messiaen in the early 1960s in response to a commission from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Over 100 players, a large choir and seven soloists are required [Illustration, 1st performance in Lisbon, 1969]. Those substantial demands mean that the work is seldom performed, but in this commemorative year this was its second outing on the London concert platform, having already been heard at the BBC Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales under Thierry Fischer.

This performance had the added merit that both conductor and pianist were very closely associated with the composer himself. However, the orchestra and singers gave a strong performance of this demanding work, meaning that, whilst Aimard brought his characteristic style to the playing he did not have the exclusive burden of carrying the work's artistic momentum. Nagano was passionate and dynamic on the podium, his feeling for the work and his understanding of the composer showing clearly.

The score uses a range of the composer's distinctive techniques: inspiration from plainchant and from birdsong (in the writing for solo piano and tuned percussion), exotic Eastern style harmonies and dramatic climaxes with use of percussion reminiscent of Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorem (which Nagano conducted at this year's Proms).

La Transfiguration is divided into two sections, the 'Premier Septenaire' devoted to the idea of light, because "Christ transfigured became radiant"; and the 'Deuxieme Septenaire', based on the idea of the filiation of Christ (thus sharing conceptual material with Messiaen's Trinite meditations for organ). The two sections were given without a break in a performance lasting almost two hours. Messiaen had been inspired for some time to write a work on the theme of the Transfiguration, after being profoundly moved by a sermon he heard on the day of that feast in 1961 in a country church in the Dauphine. He regarded it as suitable for a work of commemoration because " We remember the dead by their most saintly qualities, and those who were people on Earth will become one day the "glorious body " in heaven. There is a moment in the life of Christ when this glory with shown to us and promised to us: the Transfiguration."

The commission was explicitly for a work which was not to be funereal in character but rather which was celebrating the generosity of Mr Gulbenkian. Maria Madalena de Azeredo Perdigao, Director of Music of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, made the suggestion (recorded in correspondence between herself and the composer) that poetry in Latin could be used, as this could be easily sung by a Portuguese chorus and would be universally understood. Messiaen did take up the suggestion for Latin texts -- which were indeed easy to understand and easy to follow, in this performance having the benefit of being very clearly enunciated by the singers -- but drew on a range of sources: the Gospel of St Matthew, the Psalms, the writings of St Paul, the Book of Wisdom, the writings of St Thomas Aquinas and the Roman Catholic Office for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

The work opens with a recitative section setting verses from St Matthew's Gospel giving an account of the Transfiguration. This technique is used recurrently throughout the work and gives it some feeling of an oratorio, particularly when combined with its biblical material. Similar recititative sections form the fourth, eighth and eleventh movements. Percussion is used strongly, effectively and extensively - for example in the third movement, where 'the earth trembled and shook' is portrayed onomatopoeically in the orchestration. Later in the first section, the brightness of the light seen by the disciples - and the image of radiance as a symbol of eternity and of deity - comes more to the forefront of the words and music. A luminescent sound world is created, with extensive use of woodwind and particularly of the flute. The lower voice of the cello symbolises timelessness and Karen Stephenson's solo performance on this instrument (which is used very extensively and has a demanding part) deserves special commendation. As the first part draws to a close, the forces gather together, creating a full round and resonant sound, yet remaining reverential, as they proclaim, 'Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, on His holy mountain.'

Kent Nagano allowed a much-needed pause before leading into the second septenaire, again opening with a recitative section. This includes the highly effective musical portrayal of 'a voice from the cloud'. Wonderful crashing cymbals introduce first low brass and then the entry of the basses with 'This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him' in what is one of the most dramatic and exciting movements of this monumental piece. The next section, which sets theological discourse by St Thomas Aquinas, is less easy to follow than the scriptural quotations and comes the closest of all the movements to being at least a little problematic. However, the orchestration builds in a fantastic gathering of sound which counterbalances any relative difficulties with the recitative.

An excellent cello solo then introduces the Prayer for the Feast of the Transfiguration, which leads into a lengthy vocalise with flute and percussion solos, performed with rigour and discipline without losing the sense of expansiveness. A final recitative section brings great tenderness to Jesus telling the disciples to 'Rise and have no fear'. The work then builds steadily to its conclusion with 'Fearful is this place', 'The whole Trinity appeared' and 'The Choral of the Light of the Glory'. The huge forces enable a 'wall of sound' effect to envelope the audience. Even the ovation of a near-capacity RFH was quiet by comparison!

As this year-long commemoration moves towards its conclusion, it is looking particularly at Messiaen's influence as a teacher, as well as composer and performer - with works by a diverse range of his pupils featuring in this month's concerts. So La Transfiguration, itself written to commemorate generous contribution to the arts, and performed by those with close ties to Messiaen, is a very fitting tribute his own varied and significant contributions to music in the twentieth century, as well as being a stirring performance of a powerful but rarely-heard work.

Julie Williams