Salzburg Festival 2023 / SWR Symphony Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher: Messiaen – Éclairs sur l’Au-delà…

by 5:4

During my recent time in Salzburg, i explored many of the city’s large number of churches. All of them were Catholic, and while they were undeniably impressive – none more so than the absurdly massive cathedral – it was striking to see the extent to which they were almost infeasibly crammed full of art and iconography. To be in the midst of such a large quantity of this stuff soon began to take on a distinctly surreal flavour; one tends to take Catholic imagery for granted, but the more i really looked at the details of what i was seeing, the more strange, grotesque and downright insane it started to feel. It’s not remotely surprising that the inherent irrationality at the superstitious core of religious belief should be extended to its imagery (how could it not?), and my reflections about this suddenly came to mind during last Thursday evening’s Salzburg Festival concert given by the SWR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, in their performance of Olivier Messiaen‘s last orchestral work Éclairs sur l’Au-delà….

Despite the fact i’ve been fascinated by, at times steeped in, his music since i was a teenager, and know all about its overabundance of theological baggage, i’ve never really made the connection between Messiaen’s bizarre musical behaviours, narratives and structures and the unhinged weirdness of Catholic imagery. This connection began to make its presence felt as early as the second movement, ‘La Constellation du Sagittaire’, one of several that seem to operate according to a form of religious ‘spell-casting’, adding each of the necessary ingredients in the correct order to achieve the desired evo-/invocation. Not so much “eye of newt” and “toe of frog” as “rising chords over glissandi harmonics” and “a chorus of superimposed birdsong”. Its chop-and-change episodic shifts were echoed in the following ‘L’Oiseau-lyre et la Ville-fiancée’, where Metzmacher and the SWR SO presented the palpable sense of an inscrutable method being painstakingly worked through. In this instance it was more literally true, being as it is sonic reimagining of the flamboyant rituals of the Lyrebird.

In both of these movements, the performance was what one might call “verbatim”, less attempting to shape or homologise Messiaen’s capricious, disjunct materials than simply trusting in them. This extended to perhaps the most odd and wildly episodic of these ‘spell-castings’, eighth movement ‘Les Étoiles el la Gloire’, in which the trio of keyboard percussionists outdid themselves in a superb display of high-speed coordination. Yet it begged the question, when the movement arrived at its massive closing chorale, as to whether this really could function as a convincing crowning unity of the disorienting array of ideas that had gone before it.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher: Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 20 July 2023 (photo: SF/Marco Borrelli)

This was one of a number of occasions during the concert when i found myself thinking about Turangalîla-Symphonie. On the one hand, it’s not fair or accurate to think of Éclairs sur l’Au-delà… as a kind of sequel to the earlier work, yet in terms of scale and structure it’s impossible to avoid some sort of comparison. One of the key narrative differences between the two works seems to be precisely what i’ve called the ‘spell-casting’ of Éclairs, its incessant urge to keep darting between different ideas with the aim of attaining some kind of spontaneous cumulative effect. Yet while the sharp behavioural shifts are interesting in their own right, and Messiaen’s unique ways of orchestrating his ideas are always fascinating, it’s a tough call to hope that juxaposition can lead to accumulation. One of the key strengths of Turangalîla, a highly complex work that nonetheless coheres strongly, is its focus on a narrow range of distinct, cycling ideas that are presented and, yes, juxtaposed, but also extensively developed as part of a clear, over-arching narrative trajectory. Of course, that work was a symphony, and Éclairs sur l’Au-delà… is not – another reason it’s unfair to compare them – yet it highlights one of the issues of Éclairs that any performance, even such a stunningly lucid one as this, is forced to contend with. i’ve written previously about the difficulties of performing Messiaen with regard to faithfulness to the score and the possibility (or otherwise) of interpretational scope. As i’ve indicated, Metzmacher and the SWR SO seemed to be going for fidelity, and who can blame them?

Certainly, the way they rendered Messiaen’s more mellifluous, cohesive sequences was outstanding. The work’s opening, ‘Apparition du Christ glorieux’, was a remarkable demonstration of wind and brass blending, a stunningly homogenous chorale where nothing protruded through the seamless texture, Metzmacher allowing its apparent stasis to be unobtrusively broken by the unexpected expansions to its chord sequence. Likewise the intense fifth movement, ‘Demeurer dans l’Amour…’, which again brought to mind Turangalîla, sounding like its slow movement (‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’) but without the birds. It got me wondering whether this was at the heart of Messiaen’s strange desire over the years to slow down that movement more and more to the point that the poor birds sound downright torpid. Perhaps, as one of his many so-called ‘ecstatic’ movements, it was with the string ecstasy where his interest really lay, such that the birds became unwitting casualties. In the case of ‘Demeurer dans l’Amour…’, Metzmacher made Messiaen’s pauses in the music enigmatic, questioning whether they were separating parts of a larger, ongoing melody, or gaps between multiple articulations of the same short song, furthermore clarifying that this was not another stasis (as seemed at first) but music moving in a confined space. While over-egging the ecstasy has been the downfall of far too many performances of Turangalîla, Metzmacher’s lingering approach here could not have been more ideal. The same goes for ‘Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux…’, the curious seventh movement that almost sounds like it should be heard after an interval, its music here communicating a freshness and delicacy that contrasted wonderfully with the austerity and severity around it.

It’s easy to imagine Messiaen as a kind of crazed zealot running around madly shouting, “birds! trumpets! angels! bliss! stars! ecstasy! love! death! joy!”, yet the conviction underlying the musical narrative of Éclairs sur l’Au-delà… is impossible to ignore, though whether it’s enough to orient or cohere the work as a whole is another question. By the time we reached the final two movements – the ebulliently energetic ‘Les Chemin de l’Invisible’ and restful ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’ – it felt very much that the work’s behavioural scope had been exhausted and that it might have benefitted from having a few movements shaved off. Yet for all its endemic, outlandish oddness, Metzmacher and the SWR SO’s rendition of Éclairs sur l’Au-delà… was filled with just as much, if not more, wonder as weirdness. While its music may not be able to fully convince, their straightforward faith in it was contagious, leaving me wanting to believe.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher: Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 20 July 2023 (photo: SF/Marco Borrelli)

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I’ve recently been enjoying the sheer widescreen barminess of Tippett’s The Mask of Time (is Tippett the closest thing the British have to Messiaen, despite his never adhered to any particular faith? Discuss.), so it sounds like I need track down a recording of this, which has so far escaped previous bouts of Messiaen-listening…

Dan JC

Ahh, The Mask of Time, wonderful stuff! I really need to spend more time with it, thanks for the reminder…
In some ways I would say that Birtwistle is the nearest thing the British have had to Messiaen. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Birtwistle’s music in recent years – it’s obviously deeply ritualistic and ceremonial music, but (dare I say?) it has a profound spirituality beneath the abrasive exterior.
There’s an interview on YouTube somewhere where Martyn Brabbins asks him about religion, it goes something like this:
MB: How does religion relate to your life and work, or is that too much to ask?
HB: No… it’s not too much to ask… but it’s too much to answer!
In any case, I still think that The Mask of Orpheus (a deeply religious work imo) is the greatest thing any British composer has ever created, and probably one of the greatest operas ever written. Now, if only Birtwistle had written some organ music too, that really would be something!

Dan JC

Apologies for the confusion! I love both pieces but definitely meant Orpheus – it’s in a different league entirely. It really is HB’s masterpiece if you haven’t heard it before.
I also read the Soden book and really enjoyed it! I wish someone would record his final opera at some point – it sounds absolutely bonkers but I’d still love to experience it.
Glad you made it to St-Sulpice, I was there myself a few years ago – it really is a stunning place! Is Daniel Roth still playing there? Another one of my organist heroes…

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