on 14 April 2009
This 4 hour work was in the composers view his magnum opus summing up his musical life and religious beliefs.
It has met with some pretty fierce criticism, the editor of Opera expressed the hope there would not be many productions in the centenary year, a critic in the same journal went further in a pretty vitriolic review, and the reviews of the Proms performance, very poorly attended, said it was too long and the worse sin for a dramatic work , that its dull.
I dont think its dull, but it does move at a very leasurely pace and there is very little drama, yet I think it clearly is Operatic. It is one of those problematic pieces thatare hard to stage but still need staging for their full effect
With a vast orchestra and chorus and its length it will only be staged rarely and sadly this is very unlikely ever to be in the UK. So this performance is really the only way to get to know the work.
Repeated hearings have gradually persuaded me of the works validity. There are some very beautiful passages which are immediately appreciated, the angel who visits Francis and plays music on a viol is an extraordinary moment, like nothing else in Messiaen. But I have now gradually appreciated the way the music slowly moves to Francis' death and have become very attached to the vocal line, even when a first hearinfg it appears to be a type of recitative. The best way I can explain it, is if you love Wagner eventually some of the quietest passages , for example the meeting between Brunnhilde and her Valkyrie sister in Gotterdammerung can mean as much or even more as the popular "highlights", so it is here.
This is not a work for some one approaching Messiaen for the first time but if you love his music you have to get to know the huge late work on which he expended so much effort
on 23 April 2009
"This was the last good piece of music written. Composition ends here."
With Messiaen's final great piece heard, it seems like the final chords in music history have been penned. Vast in scale and conception, this is a phenomenal drama. Critics of modern music will find everything to hate, from arrestingly new instruments, such as the ondes Martenot, and the extensive use of new chords and textures, rather than melodic devices, to act as motifs for each character or theme. On the other hand, those a little more open minded and hard-working will come away with a broad grin and a haunting night's sleep. The use of Messiaen's birdsong studies in particular will come as a pleasant shock to the uninitiated, and the peculiar characteristic emphases on 'clean' portrayals, without the murkiness of sin, and his fixation on the transcendent experience of God, give the work the Catholic theme particular to Messiaen.
The subject, as Wikipedia will amply "inform" you, is the life of St Francis of Assisi, laid in several tableaux. Like Wagner, Messiaen envisaged the opera in terms of total immersion, and uses stage effects extensively, a feature demanding attendance at a live performance. For those less fortunate (I have only seen it once), the CD will give hours of enjoyment, and rewards re-listening many, many times. Having heard few performances, I cannot really comment on this particular recording, but it is supposed to rather good, and no flaws jump out. St Francis is sung by the original performer, José Van Dam, and as Nagano's second recording of the opera, he has the experience to add to his talent, making this an excellent sound throughout.