Messiaen: La Transfiguration Import
Messiaen's La Transfiguration is a massive, complex, uncompromising work, embracing an extraordinary episode in the life of Christ with many of the composer's trademarks--from the familiar birdsong (a truly cosmopolitan array here) and the fantastical echoes of Asian music, to the more specifically liturgical Catholic sounds. The vast tonal range represents a world in itself, and this Radio France recording has the clarity and vividness which, combined with Messiaen's fantastical orchestration, make for something of a sonic spectacular.
The light that blazed at Christ's transfiguration blazes through the work, coloured by the sense of the ecstatic that lay behind Messiaen's religious sensibility. Fine though this rare recording is, conductor Myung-Whun Chung doesn't consistently uncover that ecstasy. The slow-striding nature of so much of La Transfiguration doesn't preclude the need for more fantasy, fluidity and truly gripping sense of drama and awe than we find here. The transfiguration was, after all, a surreal event. The vital role of the Choir of Radio France typifies this reservation. The singers do an excellent job in many respects, but all those slow-moving unison choral lines don't just sing themselves--they need to be smitten with Messiaen's intense spiritual vision. Still a welcome, recommendable release.--Andrew Green
If that sounds monotonous, it is more than made up for in the brilliance of the orchestral writing. Here is a profusion of the composer's beloved birds, taken from all over the world. Here is the glitter of a large batterie of tuned percussion. Here is the special sound only Messiaen had the key to in his brass and woodwind writing. And here is all Messiaen's unique synesthetic (seeing harmonies as colours) approach to slowly shifting chords and keys. Here, too, are love-songs to match the central movement of Turangalila, landscapes to match the vivid pictures in Des Canyons or the Catalogue d'Oiseaux and huge marmoreal chorales to match the equivalent movements in Et Expecto or even Messiaen's last orchestral work, Eclairs sur l'au dela.
What is distinctive about La Transfiguration, as befits its subject, is the way in which Messiaen seems to be exploring ways of writing music as an objective correlative for light. The nearest comparison I can think of is the late paintings of Monet where he attempted to capture the very nature of light itself in his paint. Whether it's the iridescent shimmer of light on the wings of an exotic bird, the sudden stark flash of lightning on a dark landscape or the blinding brilliance of the light of the Transfiguration itself, Messiaen unerringly finds the appropriate musical metaphor.
This is an important recording because the work's sheer size precludes too many performances. Certainly the modern sound is a huge asset, allowing all that colourful orchestral palette to shine at its brightest. But there is something of the Messiaenic ecstasy and abandon missing from this performance. It is all a bit too careful. For example, the piece was partly a response to Rostropovich's repeated requests for a Cello Concerto from the composer and there is a crucial part for solo cello. The cellist on this French performance simply lacks Slava's richness, depth of tone and passion - he's too monochrome. So, too, the singing of the choir, which is musically precise but lacks the variety and colour that show a real response to the text however static the musical line seems to be. The currently unavailable Dorati performance from Washington on Decca, made soon after the work's premiere, comes much closer to an ideal performance. Seek that out if you can. If not, this disc will serve as a more than adequate introduction to a major and little known Messiaen work.
However I cannot fault the gorgeous sound or the committed performance here, but I think I prefer to turn to his massive opera St Francis of Assisi for spiritual nourishment, and for a better example of Messiaen's vocal and choral writing.
This work was received with wild enthusiasm at its first performance, and, I believe, at most of its subsequent performances. The first was at the Coliseu in Lisbon as part of the 1969 Gulbenkian Festival. According to Messiaen's diary (as reported by Peter Hill in his wonderful new book) the audience of 9000 (!) applauded for a solid half-hour at the end, and Messiaen was completely overwhelmed.
Anyway, I haven't heard the Chung performance, and I must say that I'm somewhat hesitant to buy it, for the following reasons. First, just based on the Music Sampler snatches here, I don't agree with many of his tempi. They seem to drag a fair bit, and Dorati's reading definitely has more gusto. Secondly (and please bear with me), if you listen specifically to the beginning of the 9th movement (Perfecte conscius illius perfectae generationis), you'll hear a big fat chord of resonance repeated several times followed by a very low note on the trombone (I think, I don't have the score), then that note is repeated with much more force by all the lowest instruments (I'm assuming double bases, saxhorn, contrabass tuba, and some low tam-tams), and this is followed by the baritone male voices one whole note higher. In the Chung version, these low notes are somewhat tame, and each is distinct to the extent that they sound like completely separate occurrences in sequence. In the Dorati version, the low trombone is followed by a shattering, rolling, rumbling paroxysm, and the male voices ride the gradual decay of this enormous sound. This part sounds for all the world like the creation of the universe. With sounds like this, you really start to understand what Messiaen meant by "explosions of blue-orange lava" and all the rest of it. By comparison, I think that the Chung version is much too civilized. Finally, concerning the criticism of this work's apparent lack of form or structure other than "blocks", all I can say is that repeated listening, particularly of the second "septenaire", reveals a definite sense of structure, sort of a gradual rise toward the shattering climax of the 13th movement, when the complete trinity appears on the mountaintop (Tota trinitas apparuit). The final chorale of movement 14 (Choral de la lumiere de gloire) is a completely fitting coda to the whole affair. Again, careful, concentrated listening to this part of the work will reveal amazing shades of harmonic complexity that are completely mindblowing. In most (if not all) of these chords, all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounding simultaneously, and it is only their judicious distribution across the various levels of pitch and timbre within the orchestra and choir which gives the impression of a tonic progression. However, if you try to hone in on a any specific group of notes to understand "intellectually" what the progression actually is, you lose it. It's a bit like what Aristotle said about time, that everyone knows what it is but nobody can say what it is. This piece, and by extension many of Messiaen's later pieces (from the late fifties onwards) represent (in my humble opinion) the absolute pinnacle of harmonic development in all of Western music.
In any case, one can't expect everyone to like it. As Messiaen himself said (again, quoted from Hill's book), his music is targeted to an initiated elite.