Resplendent Messiaen Des canyons aux étoiles… with the FRSO and Oramo

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo onstage at Helsinki Music Centre after a dazzling performance of Des canyons aux étoiles… on Wednesday evening. © Jari Kallio

Among the Olivier Messiaen oeuvre, and within the European postwar avant-garde in general, there are few works, if any, that can quite match the multi-faceted invention, colossal impact and sheer beauty of his twelve-movement, ninety-minute epic Des canyons aux étoiles… (1971-74). 

Scored for piano solo, horn, xylorimba, glockenspiel and an unusual orchestral setup of thirteen strings, fourteen winds, eight brass as well as five percussionist playing a wide array of pitched and non-pitched instruments, including temple blocks, bells, chimes, cymbals, wind machine and geophone, an instrument devised by the composer by filling a drum with lead pellets, Des canyons aux étoiles…inhabits a sonic realm of dazzling uniqueness. 

Messiaen’s vast instrumental narrative extends from bird-calls and desert onomatopoeia to resplendent celestial transfiguration. The awe-inspiring natural reserves of Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park, which Messaen visited upon his 1972 stay in Utah, provided the composer with a core impetus for his astounding series of tableaux, celebrating the Creation and the Kingdom Come.

Commissioned by singer and patron Alice Tully to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States Declaration of Independence, Messiaen’s score pays homage to the very bedrock of the North America and its celestial messengers, the birds.

Not too often performed, the three-volume score calls for a large ensemble of virtuoso players, making full use of their expressive scale, employing both conventional and extended techniques. Thus, having the chance to hear Des canyons aux étoiles…in spellbinding performance with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo on Wednesday was simply a tremendous joy. 

In terms of line-up, the concert was a family effort par excellence; for not only did Oramo serve the orchestra as their Chief Conductor from 2003 to 2012, but also all four soloists were drawn from the ranks of the FRSO. The solo piano part, a substantial endeavour, as always with Messiaen, was taken up by the orchestra’s Keyboard Soloist Jouko Laivuori, joined by Principal Horn Jukka Harju and percussionists Jani Niinimäki on xylorimba and Jerry Piipponen on glockenspiel. 

A celebration of musicality and teamwork, Des canyons aux étoiles… went beyond a typical concert outing, yielding to a hallowed ordinance of connectivity and unity, manifested in the most scintillating feast of colour, rhythm and nature-bound melodic lines. 

The twelve-movement score is divided into three larger units, with both outer parts consisting of five movements, respectively, framing a two-movement second part. Two of the movements, the fourth, Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin and the ninth, Le Moqueur polyglotte, are assigned to the piano soloist, whereas the sixth movement, Appel interstellaire, is conceived as a substantial solo sequence for the horn. In addition, all four soloists appear throughout the entire work, in various permutations, interlocking with each other as well as the orchestra. 

The sonorous dramaturgy of the vast musical arch of Des canyons aux étoiles… is based on a series of motivic cells, rhythmic configurations and interwoven textures, with are developed cyclically throughout the twelve movements, their eternal recurrence giving rise to musical architecture of compelling magnificence. 

In terms of narrative, the first part pays homage to the sheer majesty of the rock formations of Cedar Breaks, juxtaposing the primordial desert with the eternally revolving night-skies. In the score, the movements are prefaced with quotations from the Bible or other sources with theological musings, emphasising the devout undercurrents of the music. 

The second part opens with the interstellar horn call, reaching out to the stars and beyond, contrasted with the tremendous sonic pillars summoning the red-orange rocks of Bryce Canyon into their aural manifestations. 

In his score, Messiaen fuses together chorale-like blocks, agile rhythmic configurations and soaring melodic fragments into gorgeous instrumental formations of immense communicativeness. The interplay between the soloists and the ensemble gives rise to myriad textures, some of awe, others of ecstasy. 

In the third part, the music reaches the stars and eventually transcends beyond them into eternity and the Celestial City. Inspired by the extraordinary diversity of Zion Park natural reserve, Messiaen unravels a musical fabric of sublime beauty and glimmering festivity. Rounding off with a terrific fortissimo passage for strings, Des canyons aux étoiles…comes to its sumptuously elated conclusion. 

A performance of immense skill and connectivity, the FRSO and Oramo treated the  Helsinki Music Centre audience with an exquisite rendition of the Messiaen masterpiece. Alongside their orchestral colleagues, the four soloists shone in delivering their musical lines, be they the intricate keyboard mazes mastered by Laivuori, the virtuoso horn textures ringed out by Harju or the multitude of mallet parts ever beautifully laid out by Niinimäkin and Piipponen. 

Playing with a dazzling combination of warmth and detail, the FRSO strings sounded absolutely wonderful under Oramo. In similar vein, an astonishing array of colour and finesse was provided by the orchestra’s marvellous wind section, whereas the brass players came of as veritable masters, summoning the imagery of infinite heavens and deep-hewn rocks alike. Combined with the admirable dexterity and sensitivity of the percussion section in establishing the very foundation of the music, the Wednesday evening’s performance was nothing short of revelatory. 

Well served by sublime stage lighting design, the FRSO account of Des canyons aux étoiles…came off as much-needed affirmation of hope and faith under these troubled times; a very special keepsake indeed 

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Sakari Oramo, conductor

Jouko Laivuori, piano

Jukka Harju, horn

Jari Niinimäki, xylorimba

Jerry Piipponen, glockenspiel

Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles… (1971-74) for piano solo, horn, xylorimba, glockenspiel and orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 9 March 2022, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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