Søndergård Keeps Messiaen’s Sprawling Turangalîla under Control

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen, Turangalîla Symphony: Markus Bellheim (Piano), Jacques Tchamkerten (Ondes Martenot), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.3.2013 (SRT)

 Sixty-five years after it first appeared, there is probably no large-scale, post-war orchestral work that can match Turangalîla for its power, scale, grandeur, eclecticism, brazenness and, importantly, its sense of the downright bonkers!  It requires a vast number of players of a huge range of instruments and, most importantly of all, a conductor who can control this unruly brood and turn it into something that makes some sort of coherent sense.  A tall order under any circumstances, but the RSNO managed it triumphantly.

I’ve often admired this orchestra for the sheen and brightness of their playing, and that came into perfect focus tonight, right from the opening as they sheered up to the top of the stave, creating a thrilling sound for the tinkling accompaniment to the first appearance of Messiaen’s “statue” theme.  The brass, in particular, sounded fantastic, whether it be the gleaming trumpets in the love theme of the second movement or the threatening depths of the trombones in the statue theme, it was they who anchored the unfolding thematic texture.  The strings conjured up some very beautiful sounds throughout the whole piece, not just in the conventional love music, but in their commentary on the darker moments, too.  It was in the sixth movement particularly, however, the “Garden of the Sleep of Love”, where they came into their own, spellbindingly blending with the hypnotic tones of the ondes Martenot as it conjured up the image of the night of love that inspired the composer to write the piece in the first place.

The winds, too, were full of humour in the fourth movement scherzo, but it was the battalion of percussion players (10 of them!) that grabbed the attention most of all.  They, combined with the “gamelan” group at the front (piano, celeste and keyed glockenspiel), provided some extraordinary textural depth to the piece.  Markus Bellheim achieved some astonishing feats of dexterity on the piano, and Jacques Tchamkerten managed to avoid stealing the show on his ondes Martenot, thought I was repeatedly surprised at the sheer variety of sound he can conjure out of the thing!

Most important of all, though, was the contribution of conductor, Thomas Søndergård, conducting the piece for the first time but sounding as though he had known it for decades.  He bore the most responsibility for keeping the whole crazy melange together, avoiding it sounding like a mere box of tricks and turning it into a piece with something serious to say.  That was thanks, in no small part, to the way he applied the more conventional conductors’ techniques to this least conventional of symphonies.  As well as building up the unalloyed frenzy of the fifth movement, for example, he managed to bring a beautiful controlled release to the end of the fourth movement, with all the pieces falling into place beautifully.  This is a piece you don’t get to hear that often, and I was glad I got to hear it with this team.

Simon Thompson