Prom 13. Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles

Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo
Nicolas Hodges, Martin Owen, David Hockings, Alex Neal
Royal Albert Hall, 28 July 2019

Olivier Messiaen wrote Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) between 1971/4 as a commission celebrating the bicentenary of the US Declaration of Independence. He was strongly influenced by a visit to Utah, finding inspiration in the birds and the extraordinary landscapes. Each of the three parts of the 12-movement work concludes with a powerful movement dedicated to the dramatic geological sites of Utah, Bryce Canyon and the nearby Cedar Breaks and Zion Park. Messiaen had sound-colour synaesthesia and the “red, orange, violet” of the sandstone hoodoos of Bryce Canyon led to his focussing the extended 7th movement Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange” (Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks) in his own key of third-mode E major, a mode that he saw as a bright red-orange colour. He contrasts this image with the blue of the Steller’s Jay, one of many birds that feature throughout the piece from places as far afield as Australia, Hawaii. and the Sahara. The monumental final few bars of this movement are the aural climax of the entire piece.

Brice CanyonBryce Canyon © ABW

Another specific location that Messiaen draws upon is Cedar Breaks, a vast amphitheatre that represents a more advanced stage of sandstone erosion than Bryce Canyon. Messiaen closes the first of the three parts of Des canyons aux étoiles with Cedar Breaks et le don de crainte (Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe), a movement representing the sheer scale of the geological feature and the sense of fear and awe that it evokes. He uses many orchestral effects to create the sound world, including a solo trumpeter squeaking into a mouthpiece to the accompaniment of the wind machine. followed by a trumpet with a wa-wa mute balanced by glockenspiel and bells.

The final National Park featured is Zion Park which, in the expansive final movement Zion Park et la cité céleste (Zion Park and the celestial city), he likens to Jerusalem and a symbol of Paradise. Repeated chorale-like passages from the brass are interrupted by birdsong and percussion interventions before the work closes with a long-held string tremulo. 

Zion Park
Zion Park © ABW

Des canyons aux étoiles can be variously described as a piano concerto, a horn concerto or, perhaps more accurately, an orchestral concerto. On this occasion, Nicolas Hodges had the prominent role on the piano, negotiating the fiendishly tricky writing with seeming ease and making very effective use of the resonances of the piano. With two complete movements as piano solos and extensive involvement in the other 10 movements, this was an extraordinary achievement.

The second key soloist was Martin Owen, playing horn. He opens the work with a rallying call, but his moment of glory comes in the 6th movement, Appel interstellaire (Interstellar call), a horn solo of monumental complexity performed magnificently by Martin Owen as a piece of music theatre, standing at the front of the stage and playing from memory, his physical movements responding to the music. He communicated directly with the audience, particularly those Prommers standing just in front of him – during the frequent sudden silences he would clutch the horn to his chest like a military guardsman and gaze at them.

The other two soloists were the two principal percussionists David Hockings and Alex Neal, playing xylorimba and glockenspiel. Several of their five colleagues in the upper stage percussion zone had key moments, notable with the wind machine and the geophone, an instrument that Messiaen invented specifically for this piece, carrying it around with him to performances that he directed. It is a large frame drum filled with lead shot which, when twisted around produced a sound intended to replicate that of wind-blown sand. Other unusual percussion instruments included crotales (small, tuned bronze or brass disks), reco reco (an African scraper), and tumba (a drum).

Zion Park 2
Zion Park © ABW

A number of Messiaen’s grander pieces were specifically intended for performance in large spaces. Despite its evocative title, Des canyons aux étoiles is not one of them. That said, the vast, and sometimes problematic acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall seemed ideal for Messiaen’s other-worldly soundscape. This is a space where silence can be as telling as sound. This was a feature throughout this performance, notably, when the piano sound is allowed to slowly decay, through the sustain pedal. Several sudden silences allowed the continuing and varying resonances of the instruments to take their time. Although there were times when a little more space could have been allowed, this interpretation made good use of the space, the close spacing of the orchestra helping to focus the sound. The piano was centre-stage, with the horn soloist sitting alongside (stepping forward for his major solo) and the two percussion soloists (playing xylorimba & glockenspiel) on the far left of the stage. The 13 orchestral strings and extensive woodwind forces formed a tight centrally-placed semicircular group, with the brass centrally behind and the five other percussionists close together behind them.

Sakari Oramo’s conducting was exemplary, giving precise beats (the time signature changed very frequently) and cueing people in. He did move the piece at a slightly faster pace than is usually expected, coming it at 90 minutes, although it never felt rushed. It is not frequently performed, so the skill of all the musicians in rehearsing the complex score. I did wonder if the RAH/BBC lighting people could have made more of their coloured backdrops. The circular backstage band was blue throughout, with only the lower part of the organ and the upper gallery attempting to portray the red/orange colour that infuses Messiaen’s music.