Reversing the order of the concert of which this release is the record (in DVD and Blu-ray formats), Messiaen’s Couleurs de la Cité Céleste is now rather relegated to an exotic afterthought, following the mighty utterance of Bruckner’s final completed Symphony. Although these composers shared a devout adherence to the Roman Catholic Church, and consciously expressed their religious experiences in their work, which diverges markedly from the linear and developmental manner of much other Western music, their respective styles are considerably different from each other.
Sir Simon Rattle approaches Couleurs rather more idiomatically and with greater understanding than the Bruckner. Messiaen’s piece – a “great fan of colours … which turns on itself … like a cathedral’s rose window” – might have served as a musical window opening up on the heroic trajectory of Bruckner Eight. Instead it is a crisply delivered appendix here, with the brittle percussion of the LSO alternating with sonorous brass chorales (founded upon four different plainsong Alleluias) and further embellished by the tightly-controlled episodes on piano from Pierre-Laurent Aimard. What could be a fifteen-minute jumble is skilfully held together by Rattle so that it unfolds with the same cyclical logic of a rose window that Messiaen referred to, so that one section flexibly follows another without gaining the structural upper hand over the others. As often in the composer’s works, this performance rightly seems to emanate from an inscrutable centre, rather than marked with a clearly delineated beginning or end.
From Rattle, the Bruckner also flows, but largely because it remains tied to the fairly brisk, metronomic beat that Rattle tends to adopt, rather than following a more fluid pulse that transcends the bar-lines in the way that Jochum or Wand might achieve. On the whole this interpretation does not rush, but without pausing much between sections, or pointing up significant structural features more, it feels somewhat casual and indifferent at times as a musical argument or edifice. Even though Rattle does pull back the tempo a little at the dark, dramatic climax of the first movement where the principal idea is blasted out magnificently by the brass, he does not apply any other expressive weight to underline the point, as he usually also avoids elsewhere.
Fortunately the build-up to the climax of the Adagio is carefully planned and released impressively, though that is surely attributable as much to the experience of this orchestra, well-versed in this particular Symphony, having also performed it in recent times with arguably the greatest Bruckner conductor alive, Bernard Haitink. On the evidence of these results (having been present myself at this very concert, and having heard Rattle in the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies live on other occasions), Rattle is not nearly so natural a conductor of this composer.
Rattle’s account is genuinely illuminating, however, in terms of the lucid timbres and textures he brings into it, and there are beautifully poised and balanced solo contributions from horn and oboe in the first movement, for example; louder passages and climaxes with complex polyphonic strands come out translucently rather than a monolithic fog of sound like so many organ stops piled up; and the strings are bright and streamlined, if not dense and lush, providing an ideal sense of momentum for the opening section of the Scherzo with their scurrying motifs swirling over its determined course. It is a pity, though, that the very opening of the Symphony is not more pregnant and mysterious.
Recorded sound is ambient and atmospheric throughout, although presumably it is artificially enhanced to the point that it sounds as if emerging from a rather more resonant venue than the Barbican Hall is usually experienced when in attendance. It also results in an odd mismatch with the high-definition visual recording, as the picture appears more immediate and present than the sound, as well as tending to jump around rather hectically among different sections and even individual players of the LSO as is the contemporary habit of television broadcasts of concerts, rather than lingering more generally at a particular angle. With no bonus material on the discs, but an accompanying booklet instead, this is a no-frills release of some sumptuous music-making.