Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux at Aldeburgh Festival

Claire Jackson swaps opera glasses for binoculars at Aimard's immersive performance


The Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier, has always featured concerts across multiple venues. However, as the event has evolved under the guardianship of Aldeburgh Music, the settings have become increasingly creative. French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard – artistic director since 2009 – took programming to a new level this year, his last in post before he hands over to former Proms and Radio 3 controller Roger Wright. The festival centrepiece was an imaginative curation of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1956-8), which was performed over 20 hours.

The composer and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was fascinated by birdsong. He started making transcriptions and field recordings in the 1950s, and these influenced much of his writing, although his work goes deeper than mere reproduction. Catalogue d’Oiseaux comprises 13 pieces for solo piano, and the music references 77 species of French bird.

Sightings of the golden oriole may be rare in Suffolk, but Britten’s country is a rich enclave for nature lovers. Catalogue d’Oiseaux was split into four concerts that took place at sunrise, afternoon, dusk and nightime, at venues that allowed interplay between Messiaen’s music and twitter proper.

3:30am: an owl hoots

In another lifetime, at this hour I would have been returning from a Saturday night out on the town. In this better one, I was perched on the edge of a reed bed at Snape Maltings, home to Aldeburgh Music. An audience gathered silently to listen to the dawn chorus. Somewhere in the distance, a cockerel heckled. This was the opener to Aimard’s pianistic tour de force.

At 4:30am, Aimard took the stage in Snape's Oyster Bar. Bird calls from the adjacent marshes filled the pauses as music and avian worlds collided. When the final notes depicted the Black Wheatear, the sun blushed and turned the panorama sky-blue pink.

1pm: seagulls scream

The lunchtime concert celebrated the birds that sing in the afternoon sun. (The weather was less compliant for this element of the immersive experience.) The pristine acoustic of Snape's Britten Studio gave clarity to Aimard's dizzying artistry. In the extremities of the keyboard we felt the discomfort of the blazing heat. There were no cute canaries: Messiaen's flutter pedalling invokes a growing unease.

7:30pm: the song thrush calls

The penultimate performance was a joint venture between Aldeburgh Music and RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve, recent hosts of BBC's Springwatch. Around 500 people attended this free event, which took place on Whin Hill. Naturally, due to acoustic challenges, the piano was amplified. The sound was superb (Aldeburgh has a good track record in this respect, see: Grimes on the Beach). The effect was further enhanced by the appearance of Cetti's warbler and a flock of jackdaws, who provided the support act (or was it vice versa?) to Aimard's dusk chorus.

11pm: the nightingale sings

Back in the Britten Studio, Aimard continued his unflappable musicianship. We lay on the floor, nestled around the piano. In the darkness, we did not see Aimard swoop in; this dramatic arrival set the tone for a thrilling finale as we listened to the cries of Messiaen's night birds. At the end of the evening, Aimard kissed the score: it was a gesture that we all shared with him.

Aldeburgh Festival runs until 26 June

Catalogue d'Oiseaux was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and is available via iPlayer Radio

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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