[H]ere are some of my thoughts on Messiaen's L'Ascension: quatre meditations symphoniques:
I was interested to see that it had been performed at least twice in CSO history. Max Rudolf did it first, in 1960, and the most recent performance was in 1987 led by Erich Bergel. (Incidentally, Mahler's Ninth, also programmed, was premiered here in 1976 by -- Carmon DeLeone!!)
Messiaen was a deeply religious Catholic, and he wrote these four meditations on Christ's ascension into heaven shortly after being appointed organist at the Church of La Sainte Trinite in Paris. I always find his music extraordinarily spiritual, colorful and evocative of organ sonorities.
This piece was incandescent -- musically and visually. Since Messiaen is believed to have had "synesthesia" -- the ability to envision colors when hearing music -- Paavo Jarvi decided to have subtle lighting to accompany the music. (Apparently, he and assistant conductor Eric Dudley designed the lighting themselves -- it was not indicated in the score by the composer.) I liked the effect, which featured barely discernible changes on a screen behind the acoustical "towers" from movement to movement.
Messiaen's music was bright, mildly dissonant and of course, had lots of ascending motives. The first meditation, "Majesty of Christ Asking Glory from His Father," was an exquisite brass chorale, in which all the brass moved in parallel motion around a narrow theme. Their sound was legato, extremely controlled, light and almost chant-like. (Kramer's notes say that the trumpet theme recalls the Magnificat Antiphon for the First Vespers of the Ascension.) Kudos to Doug Lindsay, who carried the high theme beautifully. The effect was like floating, and it ended with a wonderful ascending progression.
The second, "Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul Desiring Heaven," was again atmospheric, with a freely expressive theme given to the English horn (Chris Philpotts). In contrast, "Hallelujah on the Trumpet, Hallelujah on the Cymbal" was celebratory, with massive, organ-like sonorities in the large orchestra.
The finale, "Christ's Prayer Rising to His Father," painted an exquisite mood with expansive, flowing blocks of sound and close parallel harmonies in the strings. The final moments, an ever-ascending motive with the strings, had a shimmering effect.
Though the ensemble could have been more precise at times, I thought it was a radiant performance.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Addendum to Mahler 9 Review
Janelle Gelfand of the Cincinnati Enquirer published this addition to her earlier review, published on Saturday, on her blog today: