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Ionarts at Large: Munich Messiaen 2008

Over the last few decades, the music of Olivier Messiaen has become slowly but increasingly accepted by subscription audiences, even in Germany. Spearheading that trend was – and still is – the fantabulous Turangalîla Symphony that Messiaen created between 1946 and 48, a work that dazzles, stuns, and impresses - sometimes almost too much for its own good. But his other orchestral and organ works are increasingly accepted into the outer fringes of the mainstream repertoire, too. His organ compositions and improvisations, especially during Messiaen’s life-long service as organist on the 46-stop Cavaillé-Coll organ at La Trinité (where he had been appointed at age 22, upon recommendation of Widor), once shocked, confused, and confounded the clergy and congregation during midday mass. Now they draw (and hold) audiences that would hesitate attending a Prokofiev or Bartók concert.

The mystic element of Messiaen’s music, the wash of colorful sounds, and the underlying re-assuring, joyous nature of his music strikes more and more listeners as relevant, intriguing, and even beautiful. Consequently his 100th birthday has been celebrated by the record industry with some fanfare. Deutsche Grammophone brought out a 32-CD box with his complete works, EMI one (18 CDs) with a good selection of orchestral, chamber, piano, and organ works (the latter played by the composer), Haenssler the perhaps finest collection of his orchestral works, Warner already issued their extensive Messiaen Box two years ago, Naïve threw together a collection of live recordings on six discs, and a host of labels brought us new quartets for the end of time. Compared to Carter, who most notably gets a (belated) recording of his complete string quartets (Naxos), that’s pretty impressive.

On the concert front, he’s not seen the same attention, but at least I’ve been able to catch the Berlin Philharmonic’s Salzburg tribute (Turangalîla) this summer. In Munich, only one orchestra did the honors. Of all the big cultural institutions in Munich, interestingly it was the Munich Philharmonic with its relatively conservative audience that gave Messiaen his only birthday tribute. Not the Bavarian State Orchestra (where, in Kent Nagano, an excellent Messiaen interpreter holds the reigns) nor the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra more likely to explore musical territory off the well traveled path of standards and classics.

The Munich Philharmonic’s Messiaen trilogy opened by luring Kent Nagano away from Wozzeck for a few days, across the river and presenting Des canyons aux étoiles… . Since his appointment as MD of the State Opera in 2005, Kent Nagano has made his home in Munich east of the river Isar, but it took him until this concert series – November 21st to November 23rdwhen he made his first appearance with the Munich Philharmonic to also work there. (Now we await that Opera GM Klaus Bachler will return the favor and bring Christian Thielemann into the Bavarian State Opera's pit.)

The Utah-inspired, gargantuan (100+ minute) masterpiece that is Des canyons aux étoiles… was commissioned by Alice Tully for the United States’ bicentenary. This makes Des canyons Messiaen’s second important “American” work after Turangalîla – and a personal declaration of love to the nature of Bryce Canyon, its birds and colorful rock formations. Although Messiaen stuck to the limitations of the orchestra’s size (43), he went well beyond the originally estimated duration of 20 minutes. Tully ended up getting a lot more music than she had bargained for, but surely had no reason to complain.

The 20th century’s most important catholic composer, whose deeply felt love for the miracle of God’s creation, man & nature alike, is so fully expressed in his work, was given an exciting, boldly colored treatment by Nagano who talked about Messiaen’s music-as-faith well enough (between parts II and III), even if his literal interpretation was more successful expressing rhythmic and musical detail than any underlying faith. Not surprisingly, parts one and two – about nature and man, ending not unlike a Strauss tone poem with “Bryce Canyon…”– were more convincing than part three about the heavens and whatever might be beyond the stars. Marino Formenti (piano) and Ivo Gass (solo horn) delivered everything that might be expected of them – with an even greater chance for Gass to distinguish himself in the seven minute long horn solo fifth movement, Appel interstellaire, than for Formenti in the solo-piano movements Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin – all about the African Robin-Chat – and Le Moqueur polyglotte, “The Mockingbird”. What a tribute to the beauty of Utah’s – America’s – nature and its various birds. Among them the Baltimore Oriole in the piano passages of the second movement, Les Orioles, and the Gray-Cheeked Thrush in the third movement, Ce qui est écrit sur les Étoiles.

Turangalîla had to get it’s outing, too, of course. Jun Märkl conducted, Steven Osborne and Philippe Arrieus played the piano and onde martenot, respectively. The orchestral colors Märkl evoked were loud bordering gaudy, solid and saturated. The orchestra worked like clockwork, was plenty loud and offered a good amount of sweep, romantic-dense in tone, and not particularly very transparent. Rattle, in comparison, managed his Berliners toward a more diaphanous, more trim, but equally explosive sound. Arrieus made the onde martenot whistle sweet sounds (Chant d’amour 1) into the midst of the Philharmonic Hall that could have come from the Twilight Zone (“Aliens falling in love”). The clarinet – onde martenot exchanges of Turangalîla 1, the accuracy of the playing in Chant d’amour 2, the Gershwinean Wild-West swing of Joie du sang de Étoiles – it was all marvelous, if never particularly subtle. Slighter, more refined touches entered the work starting with the sixth movement Jardin du sommeil d’amour where Osborne and the orchestra responded more sensitively to nuances.

A slender Zubin Mehta stepped unto the rostrum in Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig to lead the third installation of the Munich Philharmonic’s Messiaen tribute. The dark, grumbling, color-shifting moods of Messiaen’s Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum – written only for winds, brass, and percussion – were more an opportunity for the players of the Munich Philharmonic to distinguish themselves than for Mehta to make a particularly deep impression as a Messiaen conductor. The players took that chance: solo oboist, clarinetist, the cor anglais, and the flute impressed with round, warm sounds over an array of intricate Indian rhythms banged out on big gongs and temple bells.

The 1964 composition was intended by the commissioning French Department of Culture’s André Malraux to be a Requiem for the French victims of World War II. Messiaen subverted the commission “catholic style” and wrote a work on the resurrection of all souls. And what a work it is: With dark, strange sounds and mesmerizing rhythmic assurance it attains an old fashioned patina on modern sounds; it conveys a great level of comfort even though it is dissonant from head to toe.

Messiaen, who knew a thing or two about writing effective music (Turangalîla) makes rousing use of the percussion apparatus (especially the booming tam-tam) and creates an orchestral sound with 18 winds and 16 brass that might have you thinking that strings are dispensable, altogether. Well – strings aren’t, but Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony is.

Bernstein’s pompous third symphony is a public ego-trip down "Leonard Bernstein Emotion-Land". The music -- the usual hodge-podge from bits of dodecaphony to Broadway tunes -- doesn’t help the pseudo-rebellious, insolent and presumptuous way of Bernstein dealing with his troubled adolescence, a dominant father, and his unsettled relationship with the creator. If I were God and had someone talk to me as Bernstein does in this work (“Forgive me [Father…] / But Yours was the first mistake / Creating man in Your own image, tender / Fallible.”), I might let myself get carried away and do some smiting: “Freak Subway Accident Kills Conductor/Composer on Night of Symphony Premiere”.

It’s more than slightly embarrassing to listen to the narrator’s (Mervan Mehta) self-righteous, accusatory, pompously spiritual, and juvenile text: “Why have You taken your rainbow / That pretty bow You tied around Your finger…”. Mr Mehta jr. was not to blame – he did a terrific job in delivering these lines. Animated, well enunciated, compelling even. Then again, he and his father were to blame, because their fine contributions only enhanced the text’s pathetic-ness underlined by Hans Zimmer style movie-music moments. When there are so many wonderful American composers - why Bernstein. And if Bernstein - why this work? One hopes not too many in the audience bothered to follow or understand the text.

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