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A tale of two Catholic organists

02/20/2009 -  & February 17 (Frankfurt), 18 (Köln), 19 (Bruxelles), 22 (Wien), 2009
Olivier Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum was written in 1964 to commemorate and honour the victims of both World Wars and is uncompromising in its writing and instrumentation. While he was writing it, Messiaen was fascinated by Mexican pyramids, temples and statues of ancient Egypt, read about the resurrection and worked in the Alps. All these influences can be heard in this fascinating work, which in terms of volume alone can be hard on the ear. It is scored for woodwind, brass and percussion only. In a letter to André Malraux, de Gaulle’s Culture Minister, Messiaen wrote: “I am lucky to be Catholic and devout”. He considered the work required a power orchestration which could be played inside a cathedral or in the open air. The piece would work better in such venues rather than in the constraints of a shoe-box concert hall. Rattle brought out perfectly the massive blocks of sound, lingered on the silences in between, delighted in the oriental percussion sounds, leaving us with a deeply emotional impression of the work as a whole.

Another devout Catholic, another organist, supplied the music for the second half of the concert. Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No. 9 took nine years to write. He had been very unsettled about the reactions to his Eighth Symphony and started revising it, also revising his First and Third Symphonies at the same time. It is evident that Bruckner understood the symbolic implications of a Ninth Symphony and respected the thought of a musical testament.

Just listening to the orchestra tune up gave one the impression of a giant and well-oiled machine waiting to burst into life, which is just what they did. This was not just a concert, it was an event and a clear highlight in Zurich’s musical life.

There are of course many similarities between the Bruckner and the Messiaen, the architecture of the music, the silences, the contemplations and the shattering climaxes and these were all stressed in Rattle’s thrilling but intellectually strict interpretation. Fresh from performances around Europe, this performance was recording quality in execution. Tempi and dynamics were expertly controlled, the modernistic elements highlighted; the fortissimos verily exploded and the final discordant catharsis in the Adagio rang out before Bruckner could lay himself and his glorious final musical edifice, which he dedicated to God, to rest. Bruckner died in 1896, and did not complete the work, leaving behind only fragments of a final movement. He suggested that his Te Deum, written much earlier, could be performed as a final movement but thankfully Rattle chose wisely not to accede to his wishes.

John Rhodes



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