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The Music of Olivier Messiaen

Xenakis – Pithoprakta; Benjamin – Sudden Time; Ligeti – Atmosphères; Messiaen – Chronochromie

London Philharmonia; George Benjamin – Conductor

Royal Festival Hall, 21st October 2008

After the hoopla of recent ‘event’ concerts at the Southbank, here was an old-fashioned collection of mutually complementary works. Messiaen remained the focus, but the idea was to contextualise him as one of several figures working towards similar compositional ends – a reconsideration of the orchestra, timbre and musical time. This was partly effective – and Chronochromie is certainly the best choice if one wants to attempt such connections – but the concert nevertheless highlighted what an odd composer he was.

Messiaen may have influenced and been influenced by the sound mass compositions of Ligeti and Xenakis, but the holistic character of his technique remains unique. Whereas for the latter composers rhythm emerges gradually as a consequence of the unfolding of larger timbral complexes, in Chronochromie harmony, melody and form are all subjects of pulse. The rhythmic scaffold only temporarily releases its hold near the end of the work in ‘Epode’, the famous birdsong chorus for 18 solo strings. These fundamentally opposite approaches undermined any direct connections between the composers, but emphasised at the same time the imaginative brilliance of Ligeti and Xenakis.

For anyone expecting stochastic Sturm und Drang, Pithoprakta is a surprise. I might have wished for more bite from the Philharmonia’s performance, particularly from a timid woodblock, but in truth this is an example of Xenakis’s more delicate, spidery style. Benjamin vigorously marked the downbeats of each section from the podium but the sonic impression was of a papery surface across which tiny ruptures were scattered rather than a sonic whirlwind.

Atmosphères isn’t always so subtle, and at its worse can attract really schmaltzy readings. They struggle in the second half of the piece, however, as the lush clusters give way to skittery textures of massed glissandi and the like. No such problems here. This was an excellent performance that thoroughly stretched the orchestra’s dynamic range (especially in the breathtaking pianissimos) and didn’t shy from the score’s more uncomfortable moments: the rise into piercing, stratospheric flutes in the middle of the piece could have shattered glass.

In such radical company, Benjamin’s Sudden Time, an unsettling mix of treacly strings and crisp percussion, sounded like the oldest, not the youngest piece on show.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Blog: http://johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com