The Transfiguration of Messiaen

It's a sad fact of musical life that as you look through the concert programmes there is a preponderance of the same thirty or so popular works from Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, Rachmaninov... audiences tend to want to hear music they know in advance they will like: given the cost of tickets one can understand this.

So when I saw that the Royal Festival Hall was presenting Messiaen's La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, I leapt (gently) at the chance to hear something a bit more unusual. The work was commissioned in 1965 by the Gulbenkian Foundation. What they expected was a 45 minute work for wordless chorus, orchestra, and five instrumental soloists. What they eventually got, in 1969, was a 105 minute work in fourteen sections for a chorus, a huge orchestra (the percussion section includes ten differently tuned gongs), and soloists on piano, flute, clarinet, cello, marimba, vibrophone and xylophone. The words are taken largely from the Bible, with some other sources, and represent Christ's Transfiguration, reported by three of the Gospels as taking place prior to the events leading to the Crucifixion. The text is in Latin.

Messiaen orchestrates the work with great skill and use of colour: the lush and complex harmonies are also highly discordant. The text is sung slowly, separated by orchestral punctuations. Some sections are dramatically effective - in particular the eerieness accompanying the description of a cloud from which issued the voice of God. However one does wonder why a longish and calmly reasoned paragraph from the writings of Thomas Aquinas was accompanied by dramatic sections more suggestive of some sort of apocalypse.

The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Kent Nagano, and gave a magnificent performance of what must be a difficult work (and exhausting - no interval). The audience - such as it was - was highly appreciative, but the hall was more than half empty: which is of course why the more usual preponderance of Beethoven, Mozart...

Posted: Fri - October 17, 2008 at 09:25 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM