Almost everything Olivier Messiaen wrote was intended “to glorify God in all his creation”. But he made that intention explicit in his description of Des Canyons aux Étoiles …, his longest orchestral work, composed in the early 1970s. It was commissioned for the bicentennial of US independence, and inspired by the vast desert landscapes and night skies of the American south-west, and of Utah in particular.
Along with the monumental piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux, the 90-minute work is Messiaen’s most ambitious celebration of the natural world (“God’s creation”, to the devoutly Roman Catholic composer). Birds sing in all 12 movements of Des Canyons, many of them transcribed by the composer himself in the national parks of Utah, though songs from elsewhere in the world – the Sahara, Australia, Hawaii – are incorporated. The score was an obvious choice for a Proms season that takes threatened nature as one of its themes, and it got an evening to itself, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo, with pianist Nicolas Hodges, horn player Martin Owen and percussionists David Hockings and Alex Neal as the soloists.
Unlike some of Messiaen’s works, Des Canyons was not specifically written for a large, resonant performing space, but the Royal Albert Hall acoustic suited it well. The massive diatonic climax that ends the second of the three parts was easily accommodated; silences were tinged with the dying echoes of the tuned percussion; the tangles of wind lines, as in the ecstatic explosion of birdsong in the penultimate movement, were superbly defined.
Interstellar Call, the solo-horn movement, which now seems an unlikely precursor to some of the instrumental solos in Stockhausen’s Licht cycle, was made into a masterly tour de force by Owen, just as Hodges was fearsomely authoritative in his two solo movements, both of them bird portraits. But under Oramo’s command, it was the variety and virtuoso flair of the orchestral writing that made the biggest impact. There may be moments that recall Messiaen’s earlier works – Turangalîla, Oiseaux Exotiques, Chronochromie – but there’s much more that remains thrillingly fresh and unlike anything else he ever wrote. As this performance reminded us, Des Canyons aux Étoiles … is one of his greatest achievements.