City Halls, Glasgow
On the same night the BBC SSO released its plans for a challenging and adventurous new 2023-24 season, its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth was pre-echoing that explorative spirit directing a concert dominated by one of the eight tableaux, The Sermon to the Birds, from Olivier Messiaen’s only opera, the epic Saint François d’Assise.
Completed late in the French composer’s life, and premiered in 1975, it’s an encapsulation of Messiaen’s life and music. A self-styled radical, he called on the ecstatic freedom of birdsong, the distinctive qualities of systematic modes and Eastern-inspired rhythms from which his harmonic and melodic sound world was derived, and an engrained Catholicism, to formulate one of the most distinctive modernist 20th century voices.
The tableau performed here from the opera’s central act – The Sermon to the Birds – is perhaps the most demonstrative of this: the cathartic extravagance of its avian counterpoints rich to the point of wild cacophony; the powerful juxtaposition of compressed harmonic colour, constant rhythmic surprises and searing melodies; the spine-tingling exuberance from a colossal of the percussion section; and the heart-stopping intensity delivers by those high-density major chords that finally appear as if to ground the whole experience.
Wigglesworth and an expanded SSO gave it big licks in Thursday’s riveting performance, one which, with the help of assistant conductor Emilie Godden and the luxury of three penetrating Ondes Martenot, was a triumph of controlled and mostly well-coordinated intent. The two soloists, Scots tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Ashley Riches, proved a solid, complementary and emotive pairing, though audience access to the text – surtitles perhaps? – would have facilitated a more detailed appreciation of the French narrative.
The Messiaen followed an earlier paean to nature, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Wigglesworth’s approach may have been essentially cautious – we’ve witnessed far more impetuous storms and expansive countryside greenery from the SSO in the past – but in this performance he elicited such endearing warmth from the strings and meaningful fluidity from the wind that any brief moments of laxity proved inconsequential.
The programme is repeated at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Sunday 16 April, 3pm
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. It is also repeated at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Sun 16 April at 3pm