MESSIAEN Turangalîla Symphony
When, in 2008, I wrote a Gramophone Collection piece about Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie (A/08), Kent Nagano’s 2002 Berlin Philharmonic recording (9/01) came out on top. I couldn’t find it within myself to recommend Myung-Whun Chung’s performance with the Orchestre de l’Opéra-Bastille, despite Messiaen’s celebrity endorsement. How you take your Turangalîla is, of course, up to you, but Chung’s brew tasted perfumed and sweet: Lipton’s Yellow Label compared to the smoky, pungent shag of Riccardo Chailly’s lapsang souchong approach.
Four years on, this performance led by the BBC Philharmonic’s newly appointed chief conductor, Juanjo Mena, utterly redefines the terms under which past/current/future Turangalîlas need to be judged. Recently I’ve been enjoying the Bergen Philharmonic’s Stravinsky with Andrew Litton (BIS, 7/11, 6/12), and hearing them rip through Messiaen’s carnivorous, citrusy orchestration confirms it: this is a great orchestra. Cynthia Millar’s ondes martenot gets nudged slightly forward in the blend. During the opening movement’s first big tutti passage (3’34”), low-end ondes martenot fanfares, too often buried within the orchestral critical mass, scar the surface like neon light blaring through a perfectly primed canvas, crackling the orchestra with electric shocks. The ondes martenot is a synthetic, manufactured sound anyway: you might as well go with that, the logic runs.
Steven Osborne, as we know, relishes bangy, clangy, strings-of-harmonic-pearls piano-writing like Messiaen’s (and Tippett’s), and is appropriately monumental during the grandstanding cadenzas while dealing cannily with what Bernstein referred to as Turangalîla’s ‘quiet commotion’. A unity of vision between pianist and conductor helps make this Turangalîla prevail where others are compromised.
Some conductors, you feel, wonder quite where to go after that climactic major chord at the swell of the mid-point fifth movement. But the concentrated meditative quality Mena and Osborne lend to the sixth movement rotates the symphony on its axis; time starts again, the piano shimmering in the afterglow of what’s gone before, Mena buying back structural capital to rip up and start again. No other conductor gets inside Messiaen’s overlapping currents of cyclic time like Mena. The eighth movement’s overlaid strata jut out – nothing is neatly tucked in. When the love theme returns, it’s splashy, messy, joyously intercut against flashbacks of Messiaen’s other material. These layers could, theoretically, circle each other indefinitely.
Producer Andrew Keener is an equal partner. When, in the first-movement tutti, you hear floating perspectives between layers; when, at the climax of the fifth movement, a whole microclimate of hitherto secreted overtones and supporting harmonics is revealed, Messiaen’s structural and orchestral mastery bounces back to life. Kent who?