Grace – this idea was at the heart of a composition of Olivier Messiaen, conceived in 1990. The French composer first considered writing an oboe concerto for his friend Heinz Holliger (born 1939). His ideas later evolved into a piece for oboe, cello, piano, harp and orchestra: Concert à 4 (Quadruple Concert). He drew his inspiration from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as from his transcriptions of bird songs, Messiaen’s trademark.
A jazz piece? No. A piano piece? Yes. Single steps? No. An uninterrupted rest? Yes. Motionless, static through rhythm and melody. A singular work. A Japanese work. Tore Takemitsu. A singular sombre, heavy atmosphere, enhanced by isolated notes, clear as rain drops. Death? An uninterrupted rest. An eternal sleep. How little do we know. How little time do we have to learn. How much time and effort we waste to stay ignorant.
200 performers. No less. A mixed choir, seven instrumental soloists and a large orchestra. Was it the magnitude of the biblical event that inspired Olivier Messiaen to this extraordinary large-scale work? The Transfiguration of Christ is narrated by Luke: Jesus took his followers Peter, John and Jacob to the top of a mountain to pray. During their common prayer, Jesus garments turned into a shining white – he is being transfigured by a celestial light. Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus while Jacob, John and Peter fall to the ground, terrified by this supernatural event.
Star Wars at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg? Not quite, but the first movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony truly reminded me of the battle between good and evil, laser swords drawn, and the eery, spacey soundtrack of Episode VII. It was even more impressive yesterday evening, when performed live by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel with Yuja Wang at the piano and Cynthia Miller on a device called “Ondes Martenot” (Martenot Waves) than on my recording of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly. This music is very powerful and has had a lasting impression on me, especially in its many subtle tones.