sat 25/05/2024

Prom 13: Des canyons aux étoiles , BBCSO, Oramo review – cursory contemplations of earth and sky | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 13: Des canyons aux étoiles..., BBCSO, Oramo review – cursory contemplations of earth and sky

Prom 13: Des canyons aux étoiles..., BBCSO, Oramo review – cursory contemplations of earth and sky

All aboard the TGV, destination infinity

Bryce Canyon, inspiration for the climactic seventh movement of Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles...© Todd Petrie

Messiaen’s language of juxtaposition over development was always susceptible to the “greatest hits” phenomenon that began to suffuse his music with contented wonder during the 1970s. While younger colleagues were throwing toys out of the pram and marbles at walls during the late 1960s, he was putting heart and soul into a synoptic concert rite – part concerto, part cantata, all-consuming – based on the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Not for the first or the last time, Messiaen then used a cycle of quasi-improvisations for his own instrument, the organ, to keep the well from drying up. The Meditations on the Holy Trinity also directed their musical gaze upwards and inwards; it seems natural, in retrospect, that his next major orchestral cycle should have done the same.

Pieced together over four years at the beginning of the 1970s, Des canyons aux étoiles gathers up elements of the Turangalîla Symphony’s form and the mystical spirituality of La Transfiguration with the technique of rewriting birdsong as a kind of piano concerto which he had refined during the 1950s and '60s with pieces such as the Reveil des Oiseaux (Dawn Chorus) and Sept Haikai (Seven Haikus). Speaking before this Prom, Sakari Oramo summed up the result as “An interstellar discussion between man and his maker.”

Space and time are always written into Messiaen’s scores, but never more so than in Des canyons, and into its ambition to connect the vastness of an earthly desert with the vastness of the celestial bodies and beyond them, the infinite realm of heaven. In the event, this Prom supplied one but not the other. Standing up and playing the solo-horn Appel Interstellaire from memory, Martin Owen reached the farthest corners of the Royal Albert Hall and projected into it with the kind of instrumental and spiritual theatre that makes the movement Messiaen’s great Stockhausen moment, improbably illustrating within six minutes our place within the cosmos and our ambitions to conquer it (a recurring theme of this year’s Proms).

Owen pictured for Des CanyonsOwen could profitably have allowed more space for his interstellar summons to bounce around the hall and come back to him. But then, so could everyone else. The performance as a whole was marked by a brisk and sometimes perfunctory efficiency that brought it home in well under an hour and a half – Des canyons needn’t seem too long at 100 minutes – and failed to hold the collective attention of a decent-sized audience, at least a hundred of whom drifted away during its course.

As in Turangalîla, Messiaen places his movement of peace and recuperation around halfway through, but this evocation of Aldebaran was badly rushed – almost double the speed I’ve sometimes heard before – and ill balanced, with tuned percussion smothering the strings’ tender chorale in sonic tinsel. Why the hurry? The first five movements of the cycle’s first part were run together without a pause, which may have succeeded in eliminating applause between them but only at the cost of confusing and alienating audience members unfamiliar with the work (at least the ones I talked to afterwards).

More dynamic sensitivity, too, would have lent variety to Nicolas Hodges’s account of the testing piano part. Perhaps rehearsal time was an issue as it so often is during the Proms, at least for the resident ensemble. Extravagance and excess belong to Des canyons as much as any other work of Messiaen’s, but Oramo and Hodges (pictured above by Eric Richmond) were not in the mood to indulge him, or us: the lasting impression was of a guided tour near closing time, and an opportunity missed.



Though I agree there were times when it seemed a bit rushed (often a feature of Oramo performances to my mind) to say that he "brought it home in well under an hour and a half" is simply not true. I timed it and it was pretty well on 89 minutes. As you say another 10 would have benefitted the performance in places but let's not exaggerate to that extent. I actually enjoyed the performance, I was happy with the balance, it was superbly played by all musicians and overall a real (though utterly exhausting) treat. Furthermore, I have never heard so many people discussing the music afterwards in the street (rather than talking about where to go next). Not everyone liked it but caused a reaction

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