The BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena: Worthwhile Foulds but Messiaen Deserves More

16/08/2015

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Prom 38. Foulds, Messiaen Steven Osborne (piano): Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martinet): Upper Voices of the London Symphony Chorus; BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena. Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2015 (CC)

Foulds – Three Mantras
Messiaen – Turangalîla Symphony

After the rather strange events at the beginning of Prom 20, again featuring the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena, I approached this Prom with a certain amount of trepidation. There was no need to worry on the organisational front: everything was nicely in place. The programming, too, was exceptional: rare Foulds followed by the treat of Messiaen’s vast Turangalîla.

The cause of Manchester-born composer John Foulds is ever worth championing; both he and Messiaen were fascinated by the mysticism of India: the title of the Messiaen comes from Sanskrit, and the Three Mantras are all that remains of Foulds’ “Sanskrit opera” Avatara (the composer destroyed the rest). This was, then, an impeccable link, presenting two very different responses to an area that continues to this day to capture the Western imagination.

The Three Mantras have been played once before at the Proms, in 1998. The three are Mantra I (of Action); Mantra II (of Bliss); Mantra III (of Will). Lest the idea of Mantra, a repeated phrase used to invoke an altered state in the participant, invoke the music of the minimalists (who, after all, repeat fragments obsessively), one would do well to remember that this is not the only approach. Think of Stockhausen’s Mantra. Foulds’ set is fascinating. The angular first even invoked Messiaen at times, while other moments seemed to be graphic enough to sound more like film music. The BBC Philharmonic’s brass section was astonishing in its presence; for the second Mantra, Foulds moved to a more English Pastoral area. Gentle and serene, a wordless female chorus seemed to touch on Scriabin’s mysticism before a flickering Scherzo passage, excellently rendered, rounded the movement off. The final movement, outgoing and even barbaric, found some of its detail lost in the Albert Hall acoustic. In this Bacchanalian romp, the BBC Philharmonic gave its all.

Last heard at the Proms in 2012 in a performance conducted by Vassily Petrenko, Messiaen’s vast and justly popular Turangalîla Symphony requires a huge, and excellent, orchestra. The present performance was blessed by the excellent Steven Osborne as solo pianist. Osborne’s previous recordings, including this very work under Mena (review) and live performances of Messiaen’s music (review ~ review) have rightly marked him out as a fine interpreter of this composer, and he did not disappoint. His contributions, whether solo, cadenza or accompanying, were perfectly varied, less relentless than, say, Peter Donohoe has brought to the part in the past (and less breath-taking in the cadenzas). The ondes’ swoops and ethereal lines were sometimes lost in the acoustic, though, as were many of the score’s details – right at the beginning there was a loss of string definition, for example. The blunting of orchestra attack was another issue.

A perfectly timed sneeze from the audience, right in Messiaen’s sublimely planned moment of silence in the second movement, ‘Chant d’amour I’, was unfortunate but it only detracted from the major issue, which was that one just did not feel the ecstasy at the core of this section. Mena has recorded this work for Hyperion (review), yet it nevertheless felt that he has not yet got the measure of it.  The hypnotic repetitions of the fourth movement, ‘Chant d’amour II’ were not quite hypnotic, and a messy opening to the fifth, ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’, was a shame but spoke much of a performance that never quite rose to exultant heights. Nevertheless, there were some interesting things here, not least the post-Ravel sweet string lines of ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ (the sixth movement”) or the blues-inflected ‘Développement de l’amour’ (movement eight). The finale, as Malcolm Hayes describes it in his programme notes, “a dance of transcendent joy”, was rather earthbound.

It was worth going for the Foulds, for sure; but Messiaen deserves more.

Colin Clarke

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