Messiaen Outshines His Neighbors

United StatesUnited States Milhaud, Poulenc, Caplet, Messiaen: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Seattle Symphony members, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 1.2.2013 (BJ)

Milhaud: Cinéma-Fantaisie
Poulenc: Elégie for horn and piano
Caplet: Conte fantastique
Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Messiaen, Turangalîla Symphony: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 2.2.2013 (BJ)

Taking advantage of the presence of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, as piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot programmed a chamber music concert for the evening between the two performances of the symphony. It was presented under the title “French Masters.”

That, in the event, turned out to be something of an overstatement. Messiaen, certainly, qualifies for the “master” label, though, as I have suggested before in these virtual columns, what he was the master of was a kind of high-thinking and putatively sacred kitsch. Milhaud, Poulenc, and Caplet, on the other hand, deserve to be called even “petits maîtres” only by courtesy, and the works by them that we heard before intermission amounted to little more, if I may be frank, than a load of old codswallop.

Even in excellent performances by a talented line-up consisting mostly of Seattle Symphony players, all three of these pieces revealed the weakness typical of French music in the early years of the 20th century: a besetting absence of harmonic pulse. That lack would be acceptable in music, such as some minimalist compositions, that actually set out to be static. These pieces, however, strive for movement and fail to achieve it. They just sit there, proceeding at no particular pace whether the succession of notes be fast or slow. Jeffrey Fair and Kimberly Russ, on horn and piano, succeeded in making Poulenc’s Elégie, written in memory of Dennis Brain within a few days of his death, sound modestly convincing. The Milhaud Cinéma-Fantaisie, a violin and piano version of his popular score Le Boeuf sur le toit, and the Caplet proved more recalcitrant.

After such a first half, the Quartet for the End of Time inevitably erased memories of what had preceded it. Messiaen’s music somehow triumphs by sheer intensity and aural imagination over its similar tendency to eschew real harmonic movement, and this quartet is one of his greatest works. It benefitted, moreover, from an utterly committed and idiomatic performance in which the dazzling Thibaudet was partnered in equally masterly fashion by clarinetist Laura DeLuca, violinist Elisa Barston, and cellist Efe Baltacigil, all of whom played their formidably challenging solos with impeccable poise and impassioned tone.

Dazzle, again, is bound to be the order of the day when Turangalîla has one of its relatively rare outings. The performance I heard and the one two days earlier were, indeed, the first the Seattle Symphony has ever given of this gigantic 65-year-old score, though it was played in Benaroya Hall in 2007 by the semi-professional Northwest Mahler Orchestra under Geoffrey Simon’s baton.

That was an amazingly well-turned and suitably exciting performance, but it was hardly surprising that the Seattle Symphony managed an even more polished account of the 80-minute work’s ten movements. After the work’s London premiere around 1950, Desmond Shawe-Taylor remarked in his review that the ugly parts of the work were fine, but he couldn’t stand the beautiful bits. On this occasion there was, to my ears, no such problem, and this may have been because the seductive warbles of the electronic ondes Martenot, expertly executed by Cynthia Millar, were balanced less prominently in the overall texture than in the four previous performances I have attended, or for that matter in the recordings I have heard.

With the other solo part, pianist Thibaudet had something of a field-day, sounding totally at ease whether delivering quicksilver cadenzas, massive chords, or dreamily meandering evocations of the bird-song the composer loved so much. The orchestra, too, was in brilliant form, with scarcely a blemish to ruffle the lustrous surface of the music. The textures of the frequent woodwind excursions were especially vividly rendered, but strings, brass, and percussion too provided a wealth of effects by turn whispered, majestically proclaimed, and seemingly jet-propelled. Morlot’s direction seemed to me admirable in its combination of fidelity to the composer’s markings and imagination in turning them to full expressive effect, and the audience’s enthusiastic reaction at the evening’s end was no more than he and his forces—not to mention Messiaen—deserved.


Bernard Jacobson