In retrospect this huge choral piece seems much more typical of the music Messiaen was writing in the mid-60s than it did at the time of its premiere. The sound world it conjures up is very like that of, say, Et Expecto, Couleurs de la Cite Celeste or Des Cantons aux Etoiles. The major difference is the use of voices. This was Messiaen's first choral piece since the 5 Rechants and the choral style is very different from either that challengingly experimental piece or from the earlier 3 Petites Liturgies - more of a forerunner to St. Francois, in fact. In La Transfiguration the choral writing is largely written in unison for the narrative plainchant-derived sections or in chordal blocks for the many chorale-like passages.
If that sounds monotonous, it is more than made up for in the brilliance of the orchestral writing. Here is a profusion of the composer's beloved birds, taken from all over the world. Here is the glitter of a large batterie of tuned percussion. Here is the special sound only Messiaen had the key to in his brass and woodwind writing. And here is all Messiaen's unique synesthetic (seeing harmonies as colours) approach to slowly shifting chords and keys. Here, too, are love-songs to match the central movement of Turangalila, landscapes to match the vivid pictures in Des Canyons or the Catalogue d'Oiseaux and huge marmoreal chorales to match the equivalent movements in Et Expecto or even Messiaen's last orchestral work, Eclairs sur l'au dela.
What is distinctive about La Transfiguration, as befits its subject, is the way in which Messiaen seems to be exploring ways of writing music as an objective correlative for light. The nearest comparison I can think of is the late paintings of Monet where he attempted to capture the very nature of light itself in his paint. Whether it's the iridescent shimmer of light on the wings of an exotic bird, the sudden stark flash of lightning on a dark landscape or the blinding brilliance of the light of the Transfiguration itself, Messiaen unerringly finds the appropriate musical metaphor.
This is an important recording because the work's sheer size precludes too many performances. Certainly the modern sound is a huge asset, allowing all that colourful orchestral palette to shine at its brightest. But there is something of the Messiaenic ecstasy and abandon missing from this performance. It is all a bit too careful. For example, the piece was partly a response to Rostropovich's repeated requests for a Cello Concerto from the composer and there is a crucial part for solo cello. The cellist on this French performance simply lacks Slava's richness, depth of tone and passion - he's too monochrome. So, too, the singing of the choir, which is musically precise but lacks the variety and colour that show a real response to the text however static the musical line seems to be. The currently unavailable Dorati performance from Washington on Decca, made soon after the work's premiere, comes much closer to an ideal performance. Seek that out if you can. If not, this disc will serve as a more than adequate introduction to a major and little known Messiaen work.