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Des Canyons aux Étoiles

28/08/2006
I must attend more live music. No matter how good a recording, it simply can’t compare to hearing the resonances shimmer away into the rafters of the concert hall. And shimmer they did last night in the hands of the pianist Benjamin Kobler, the horn player William Purvis and the NJO Summer Academy, under Reinbert de Leeuw‘s baton.
Des Canyons … is an epic work: 12 movements of Messiaen’s inimitable colour, birdsong, space and rhythmic invention. Its programme is a double journey: while travelling through the deserts, canyons and birdlife of Utah, the listener also traverses a spiritual desert, via fear and awe, on into the life of the resurrected in the celestial city. I, for one, came away from the performance bathed in what felt like it must be the ecstasy of the saints in glory.
Perhaps nowhere in the work is Messiaen’s compositional style more tuned to that ecstasy than in the eighth movement “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran” (the brightest star in Taurus, apprently). Messiaen has the knack of transporting the mind to a position in which it seems to be surveying the whole of creation, which he does in this movement superbly. The strings and woodwinds create a cosmic sense of space into which the piano, percussion and individual winds float glistening strands of birdsong to paint the rapturous souls of the resurrected.
There is a lot of piano solo, not least because there are two birdsong movements for the pianist alone. That’s one of the joys of the piece for me, and the piano playing was powerful. However, the only movement for solo horn, “Interstellar call”, was the high point of the solo work. William Purvis conveyed its structure and emotion beautifully, and his use of the piano as a sounding board at certain points added electrifying resonances beyond those of the hall’s acoustic and beyond those to be heard on the recording in my growing Messiaen collection.
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