On Saturday the 26th of February I attended in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw
a performance of this work given by the Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra under
the baton f Peter Eotvos. The piano solo part was played by the fast
rising star in contemporary usic Pierre Laurent Aimard, whose excellent
new release of the "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus" also deserves much
This piece was premiered in 1974 and written on commission by Messiaen to
commemorate the 200th birthday of the US State. It is a 75 minutes vast
orchestral work for quite unusual forces. Next to a relatively small
number of strings there is a threefold/fourfold woodwind ensemble, 4 horns
(of which one plays a major solo role), trumpets, trombones and a huge
amount of percussion (piano, xylophone, xylorimba, glockenspiel, Cuban
drums, crotan, various sets of gongs/tam-tams, aerophone, metal plate,
tubular bells and so on, and so on).The result is an absolute exubarance
in orchestral colour parallel to nothing else I know in modern music.
The piece is made up of 12 parts, divided into several sections. As
the starting point for inspiration, Messiaen choose the natural beauty of
some well known places in the States like Bryce Canyon and Cedar Creeks.
He was particularly impressed by the sheer variety of colours he found
there with innumerable nuances of red (on the ground) and blue (in the
skies). In Messiaen's conception these colours coincide with musical
harmony (E major for red A major for blue). Indeed the harmonics of the
work seem to focus on every so much nuances of and additions to these
chords as there were colours to be seen. Messiaen's harmonic technique
however is by conception (modes of limited transposition) very statical.
Although not "tonal" in a conventional sense, it makes extensive use of
natural resonance. My girlfriend's observation (she is quite unfamiliar
to Messiaen although I pester her a lot) was typical: it's not tonal,
yet natural sounding, is nail-on-the-head. Apart from this harmonic
technique, Messiaen makes extensive use of birdsong, there is some
"language musical", one or two Hindu tala-rythms, limited rythmic
permutations and non-retrogadable rythms. In short, from a point of
view of Messiaen Styles, there is not much new in the piece. The real
novelties are in the brilliant orchestration which seems like one big
love declaration to nature.
This post would get way too long when trying to point out all the amazing
things in this score. Just a few:
1. The first movement depicts the desert. It starts with a significant
call on the horn, a motto which returns on key points. This is really a
study in resonances and flagolets interspersed with flashy bird song. The
movement (as are almost all the others) is build up of repeated episodes
which in my ears greatly facilitate the listener. These episodes stand
quite static next to each other, which gives a compelling sense of
immovability (Messiaen would perhaps have said "eternity".
4. "The gift of awe". Terrifying chords, horrific effects on the violins
(playing in a very akward position on the strings). These depictions of
terror are transferred into a sense of awe. Think of Mozes hiding his face
when he saw God in the burning wood.
6. A terrific 7 minutes solo on the horn.
8. A look at the stars and on eternity. A 10 minutes long extatic piece
elaborating on A major. Eotvos was unashamedly humming along..... You
don't see that too often: people humming on contemporary music.
12. This last part sublimates the love of nature into Messiaen's love of
God. The end is a powerfull yet very tender E major.
The overall effect is quite theatrical in a good sense of the world. There
is something undeniable dramatic about this piece, which makes it perhaps
a perfect start for those wanting to become aquainted with Messiaen. I
often wonder how Berlioz would have composed had he lived in our time......
Eotvos' ensemble gave a high spirited performance. The percussionists were
obviously having a ball. Aimard is -as I've known him always- flawless:
great virtuosity and high spirits.The horn solos by Marie Luise Neunecker
were simply ravishing. This concert will be broadcasted on Wednesday March
1st on Dutch Radio 4. For the innumerable who are remote to the little pot
and wooden-shoe country I live in, I would recommend strongly one of the
Des Canyons aux Etoiles Asko Ensemble, Schonberg Ensemble
dirigent Reinbert de Leeuw
piano Marja Bon
hoorn Hans Dullaert
glockenspiel Wim Vos
xylorimba Ger de Zeeuw
Auvidis Montaigne MO 782035
directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen
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