Review Messiaen’s Sermon to the Birds, BBC SSO, Glasgow City Halls by James Ellis  

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

I don’t often review concerts I’ve heard on the radio. Though the rarity of hearing anything from Olivier Messiaen’s huge opera Saint François d’Assise could not be missed. Though the continent is being treated for the next year with at least three separate set of performances in Stuttgart, Bucharest and Hamburg, our shores would see a sliver of the grand opera. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have taken on the challenge of performing the longest tableaux, that of the third scene of the second act entitled ‘The Sermon to the Birds’.

The first two scenes of the second act already make up an hour, so this proves to be the most testing part. Having said that, this 45 minutes remains a shimmering thrill, the amount of birdsong absurd and the excitement it brings is unbounded. With ten percussionists and a heap of woodwind, there is even three ‘ondes Martenot’, an early electronic instrument filled with smashing, ethereal sonorities, you cant deny this is highly original. In this moment, St Francis watches the birds with Brother Masseo, the former blesses them and they sing out in glory. In this strange orchestration, the birds delight in the sacred nature of the act and sing out loud and proud. The battery the woodwind players and others face in this moment remains a highlight of the entire opera. It is an modulating canvas of colours and noise, seeing birds both local to Umbria and around the world show off. The brass terrifies and the strings also wow with uneasy harmonics. The percussion getting the spotlight for constant playing and energetic vitality. 

I think I could hear Ryan Wigglesworth slightly moaning during peak moments. I imagine this to be exhausting for any conductor to perform, there was apparently a second maestro on stage to reign in the buckets of chirps and whoops of these blessed birds. Ryan has proven his talents time and time again, I imagine this might have been his choice of programme and it being performed so well, should be celebrated. This tenure up north can only prove his brilliance. As the Saint, Ashley Riches pushes through a dense vocal line, all stone like chant and affirmed declarations of the cross. Ashley seems to get it, never any easy role to play by any standard, he might just work in a full outing of the work. As Masseo, Nicky Spence proves his lush tenor, something which has only gotten better as he matures. These two could easily be in the complete opera, I can just picture it.      

In the first half, was Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ or his Sixth. Nicely tying into the theme of birdsong and nature, this might be my favourite of the old Ludvig van, though it’s a fairly vanilla symphony on many levels. Like Messiaen the transcription of birdsong is clear, though a bit arbitrary from Beethoven. You can clearly tell when the birds come in, I imagine that to be quite novel in his day. Having said this, the orchestra offered a pristine take on this delightful symphony. It’s the clarity that has to shine through in this piece of sunshine, storms and other charms. The first moments cant be beat, a tonic for the weary. The last movement with the rampant storm passing to clear the path of sunlight is another mighty moment within the music. 

I wish I had been there for this head turning concert.   

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform Messiaen and Beethoven again in Edinburgh 16 April at Usher Hall at 3pm.

Listen to the concert on BBC Sounds here

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