Messiaen • Turangalīla-Symphonie

Steven Osborne, piano; Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena conducting
Hyperion CDA67816



by Richard Freed | January 24, 2013

he Turangalīla-Symphonie, which has proved to be one of Olivier Messiaen’s most durable works, as well as one of his grandest, was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for his Boston Symphony Orchestra in July 1945, two months after the end of the European part of World War II. (Messiaen, serving in the French army during the war, had been captured by the Germans and composed his now famous Quartet for the End of Time, for himself as pianist, with the clarinet, violin and cello available to three of his fellow internees.) By the time Messiaen completed Turangalīa, at the end of 1948, Koussevitzky was rounding out his final season as music director of the BSO and his failing health mitigated against his taking on such a vast and demanding score, which he assigned to Leonard Bernstein, as he had done in the case of another grand work he commissioned, Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Bernstein presided over the American premiere of Grimes at Tanglewood in the summer of 1946, following the opera’s actual premiere in London the previous year; he introduced Turangalīla to the world in Boston on December 10, 1949, two days after Messiaen’s 41st birthday. Here was something entirely new, not twelve-tone music or something classifiable under any established "school," but defining a singular and original musical approach comprising more or less equal parts of Catholic mysticism, a celebration of human love, and the meticulously identified songs of numerous birds, and in this case adding to an already large orchestra, with solo piano, the electronic sound of the ondes martenot, a sort of sound-wave machine, like the theramin, but played with a keyboard instead of just waving hands.

Turangalīla runs nearly 80 minutes and is made up of ten colorful and contrasting movements. The title, as Messiaen explained in his own detailed comments on the work, is a Sanskrit term which may be translated as "the play of love." The work to which he appended it is in fact the grand centerpiece of his three works relating to the legend of Tristan and Isolde, the others being Harawi, a "song of love and death" for voice and piano, and Cinq Rechants, for twelve voices without accompaniment. The Boston critics, for the most part, didn’t care for it, and peppered their reviews of the premiere with various derogatory humorisms. The work had to wait some twenty years for its first recording, and hasn’t had very many even now, but all of them have done well by the music. If Turangalīla’s concert performances have also been infrequent, they also have been marked by enthusiastic response from their varied audiences.

Among the recordings so far, the general preference has been for the one on Deutsche Grammophon 431 781-2, a part of the series of Messiaen’s works conducted by Myung-Whun Chung with the Orchestre de la Bastille in Paris and the composer literally at his elbow during the sessions, and in this instance with the pianist Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife, as soloist (as she had been in so many performances, including the Boston premiere), and her sister Jeanne performing on the ondes martenot. DG provided a good recording and splendid documentation in the form of the composer’s own detailed note, Admirable as it is, though, the new entry from Hyperion surpasses it, chiefly in its more vivid sound.

Actually, the performances under Chung and under the splendid Basque conductor Juanjuo Mena are very much alike, both of them charged with real enthusiasm, which has been passed on successfully to the respective orchestras. If you have the Chung recording, you may continue to enjoy it, but if you are shopping for one, the advantages of the new one, will be apparent. In general, one might say the DG recording, produced in October 1990 by Lennart Dehn, who has been responsible for so many fine recordings of the Gothernburg SO on both DG and BIS, tends to provide what might be called a "gauzy" effect, while Andrew Keener’s Bergen recording, made in October 2011, is richer still, and simply more clearly defined.

A very striking illustration of this difference may be heard in the two accounts of the fifth of the work’s ten movements, the frisky and frolicsome scherzo headed "Joie du sang des étoiles" ("Joy of the Blood of the Stars," perhaps better left in French). The phrasing and pacing of this section in the two recordings are so alike that both show the same timing, down to the second: 6:42, but details leap out from the Hyperion recording which are obscured on DG -- most strikingly the whooshings of the ondes martenot, which on Hyperion lend a certain otherworldly mystique and exoticism without calling undue attention to themselves, while on DG the instrument is simply inaudible.

Moreover, as secure and accomplished as the French orchestra sounds -- Myung-Whun Chung, after all, is a first-rate musician, apart from his specific identity with Messiaen -- the Bergen Philharmonic has a slight but very reassuring edge in terms of sheer virtuosity. This speaks very well indeed for the standards achieved by Andrew Litton, the American conductor who has been this venerable orchestra’s chief since 2003 -- and also, of course, for the actual conductor of this performance, Juanjo Mena, its principal guest conductor. The soloists, too, are unfailingly persuasive: Steven Osborne has by now solidly identified himself an authoritative interpreter of Messiaen’s music, and Cynthia Millar actually studied her instrument with Jeanne Loriod. Nigel Simeone’s notes, which include a more concise reference to Messiaen’s own, are another asset here, helpfully relating the work to its time, and to our own.

© The Audio Beat • Nothing on this site may be reprinted or reused without permission.