Music: Making Messiaen sing in the dead of night

Musicians aren’t expected to be early risers. So it was bizarre that last week at the Aldeburgh Festival, the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was at his keyboard by 4.30 am – with an audience and the BBC in wrapt attendance. And what’s more, he was still there, performing, after midnight.

It was the beginning of a day devoted to Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux: a massive suite for piano that turns birdsong into art. Played here at Aldeburgh in strategically timed concerts that extended across nearly 20 hours, it was designed for hearing in conjunction with the real thing, in the Suffolk marshlands.

The 4.30 concert happened at Snape Maltings, looking out at the adjacent reed beds as the sun rose to the screech of the dawn chorus, while the other three performances included one at dusk, with Aimard playing outdoors in a nature sanctuary, and one at dead of night in almost total darkness (with the audience sprawled on foam mats, trying not to fall asleep).

Music and ornithology have had a long relationship, explored by various composers over time. But none have done it so methodically as Messiaen, for whom birdsong offered an escape route from the serialism and historicism that encircled European music in the first half of the 20th century. Out in the garden he heard other possibilities. And he notated them, in much the way that Janáček notated human speech.

The studies of birds in the Catalogue d’oiseaux are technically formidable. Making them truly sing is hard. Here at Aldeburgh, though, Aimard was masterful, with an incisive brilliance and relentless focus that acknowledged how the music marries rigorous complexity with childlike innocence, and unsentimental clinicism with romantic charm.

It was a total triumph. And it captured the imagination of an audience who were there at dawn, followed the whole thing through, and were (I speak from personal experience) as exhausted as the pianist must have been by midnight. Happily exhausted, though. And happy to have shared the kind of landmark undertaking people talk about for years to come.

Other events at Aldeburgh that weekend – it was a crowded schedule – featured human voices, with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, providing a liturgical account of Julian Anderson’s fiendishly hard-to-pitch Bell Mass in the parish church, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir singing a collectively well-groomed Matthew Passion – from memory and milked for drama.

But the voice that lingers in my mind is that of tenor Robert Murray, singing songs by Michael Tippett. Tippett is a fabulous composer who has been neglected since his death. Which is the world’s loss. Time he was returned to repertoire.