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The Messiaenic Era

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/22/2002 -  11/23/02
Claude Debussy: La Mer, Violin Sonata, Premiere rapsodie, Cello Sonata
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila-symphonie;Quartet for the End of Time

Roger Muraro (piano)
Valerie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot)
Paul Meyer (clarinet)
Renaud Capucon (violin)
Jian Wang (cello)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung (piano and conductor)

“In the wastes - and wastings - of the Conservatoire a single personality stood out as a clear beacon…having a reputation to which more than a hint of sulphur attached…Messiaen’s class…was the only one that gave its members that conspiratorial feeling beneath all the excitement of technical discovery…

Pierre Boulez, Orientations

This 2002-2003 season in New York is supposed to be dedicated to the music of France, inspired no doubt by the Berlioz bicentennial. However, things have gotten off to a rocky start. First Charles Dutoit resigned amidst a very vituperative clash with his Montreal Symphony, leaving Damnation of Faust in jeopardy. Next, the Orchestre de Toulouse, scheduled to grace Gotham City with the delicate music of one of my own personal favorites, Albert Roussel, cancelled its entire American tour, citing, rather forebodingly, a total lack of funds. Now it is the turn of Radio France, as their leader Myung-Whun Chung brings his forces and himself to town to explore the music of that most quietly revolutionary of individuals, Olivier Messiaen. Mr. Chung presents music of this ornithologically and Orientally oriented organist on all three of his programs, two as conductor and one as pianist.

Messiaen was really the first European to think of inventing scales using other musical elements besides notes. Thus, he designs orders of rhythms and dynamics as if they were sequences of tones, a technique which has had an explosive impact on the music of the second half of the 20th century. Further, this mystic lives in the moment, putting the lie to the cherished Western concept of thematic and harmonic development in favor of the beauty of the individual sonic instant: a naked lunch when one hears what exactly is on the end of his tuning fork. All of this to extol the glory of God: Messiaen is the Bach of our modern age.

The Turangalila is a seminal work, the reverberations of the Om mixing with the echoes of the cathedral. Those frozen auditory moments were impressive in Mr. Chung’s capable hands, even if the overall sound of the French orchestra was a little lightweight for American ears used to a healthy dose of Teutonic solidity. This ensemble clearly is at a high level of disciplined blending, stopping and starting in impressive unison and able to sustain lengthy crescendos and fermatas with little or no loss of intonation. The cello section was the most pleasing in tone, the high brass the least. What was missing from this performance, however, was the electricity of the work as a whole. This piece should positively vibrate with spiritual energy; in this version, it seemed more a vehicle for instrumental feats of strength without the corresponding poetic meaning. The Turangalila was given its world premiere by Leonard Bernstein and this evening’s rendition reminded of one of his less endearing habits: effects displayed simply for their own sake. The overuse of orchestral brilliance started to become irritating over time and produced a steady stream of escapees from the audience after each movement from the fifth on. Too bad, as some of the slower, later sections were the best played.

Stalag VIII-A, Goerlitz, 1941. Certainly an odd place for a significant world premiere. And yet perhaps Messiaen’s greatest work found its voice here in the harsh conditions of a prison camp. Sitting and listening to Mr. Chung and friends perform it at the more intimate Weill Hall was an event to be treasured. The solo sections offered by clarinetist Paul Meyer and cellist Jian Wang were extremely moving tours de force, the naked sound of the individual instrument anthropomorphically representing anguish and dread, even as the eternal emerges in all of its frightening splendor (it is important to realize that the end of time was, for a religious man like Messiaen, an eagerly expected and logical conclusion). The composer had to make do with the instrumentation and personnel at hand during his internment, but no such constraint was placed upon Mr. Chung and so it was curious to note the presence of violinist Capucon, whose wavering tone and unsteady hand brought this realization down several pegs on the scale of musical appreciation. In fact, the evening started out with an unfocused Debussy sonata which portended a less than magical soiree. However, the following clarinet and cello pieces were supremely expressive. It is worth noting that the other three recorded the Messiaen not with this particular colleague, but rather with Gil Shaham. Time may end some day, but until then, it does not stand still. Apparently, scheduling did not allow for Mr. Shaham to appear this night, but his replacement seemed uncomfortable throughout. Both of these concerts offered great promise, but only delivered in part.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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