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A musical roller-coaster ride

Severance Hall
04/25/2018 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Piano), Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

(© Roger Mastroianni/Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra)

Olivier Messiaen’s Turngalîla-Symphonie is a very strange beast indeed. I first became aware of it back in the 60s when the energetic young conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, made a recording of it that created quite a buzz.

I have always thought there was a relatively conventional four-movement symphony embedded somewhere in the rambling ten-movement, 80-minute work - and it turns out there is (sort of). Messiaen first composed movements I (“Introduction”), IV (“Chant d’amour II”, the scherzo), VI (“Jardin du sommeil d’amour”, the slow movement), and X (“Final”). The other six movements, many of which recapitulate and vary the material in the four “core” movements, were gradually added as the one-year completion schedule stretched out to three. There is a lot of joyous (even goofy) leaping about; the sixth movement drifts dreamily, the counterpart to Wagner’s verbose love duet in Act II of his work.

(I am indebted to the notes accompanying the Hyperion recording of the work by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena. Listening to the movements in different orders helps one get acclimatized to the work. This takes time.)

It's rather remarkable that the massive, complex piece was rehearsed for just a single performance as a thematic accompaniment to the Cleveland Orchestra’s three-performance run of Tristan und Isolde. Messiaen was expressing his love for Yvonne Loriod (the first performer of the piano part) and the composer felt their love was fated just like Tristan and Isolde’s. His symphony certainly shares a yearning quality (in places) with Wagner’s work, but lacks the sense of doom, not necessarily a bad thing, but a factor that leads to the piece not being taken as seriously as it otherwise might.

And what to make of the ondes Martenot, an instrument that can seem to be more a mischievous toy? Keeping in mind that turangalîla can be taken to mean “time-play”, the impudent sounds of the instrument’s swoops, pops, and burbles start to make sense (in a wacky way).

The performance did full justice to the work, especially re the precision required between the pianist and orchestra. Jean-Yves Thibaudet seemed to take a sporting attitude (combined with steely determination) as the music hurtled forward, requiring him at times to maintain a ferocious ostinato - and then abruptly alter it, taking on an equally dangerous tack in another direction. It was breathtaking at times. Being an ondist (?) is such a rarified profession; Cynthia Millar presided at her keyboard with a good-humoured aplomb. I am sure this symphony is the main reason the instrument avoids extinction. The alert direction of Franz Welser-Möst kept it on track.

Audience reaction was varied as the work. A few people walked out, some looked puzzled and forlorn, most were enthusiastic. One person took it upon himself to boo one of the percussionists (how very strange). It was an exhilarating evening.

Michael Johnson



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