United Kingdom Beethoven and Messiaen:Steven Osborne (piano), Cynthia Miller (ondes-Martenot), London Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Nott (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 29.6.2014 (MB)
Beethoven – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphony
Try as I might, I found it impossible, whether before, during, or after the performance, to fathom the idea behind programming Beethoven’s Second Symphony with Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony. I suppose it showed two highly contrasting approaches to the idea of the symphony, but Messiaen’s example is such a thing-in-itself that comparison verges upon the meaningless. In the end, it was probably better simply to take the concert for what it was; at least that is what I had to do.
Jonathan Nott led the LSO in a decent account of the Beethoven, which is certainly not something to be taken for granted, especially in an age characterised largely either by perverse ideas about Beethoven or a manifest lack of ideas about him. That the introduction to the first movement began anything but promisingly was, however, no fault of the performers. Some unutterably selfish member of the audience decided to indulge not once but twice in flash photography; I hope that his or her name will have been taken and the culprit will never darken the doors of the Barbican Hall again. Thereafter, there was considerable relief to be had from a sensible tempo and excellent sense of line, which heightened, indeed engendered expectations. The exposition was on the fast side and might have yielded more – characteristics of the performance as a whole – but there was nothing objectionable to what we heard. Orchestral playing as such was alert, precise, cultured: beyond reproach really. The development section benefited from a sense of exploration, though the approach to the recapitulation was curiously throwaway. However, the great coda blazed as it should.
The slow movement flowed with grace, even if it lacked the profundity, the search for necessity and meaning, which characterise a great performance – such as we might have heard from, say, the late Sir Colin Davis, or today might still hear from Daniel Barenboim, surely the greatest Beethovenian alive. There was greater affection, though, here than elsewhere, and an admirable combination of clarity and warmth. Minor-mode passages had a proper sense of darkness to them. The scherzo was brisk, brusque even, but not in extreme fashion; the trio had an appealing lilt to its woodwind passages. It was difficult not to register a certain feeling of disappointment with respect to the finale. Very well-played though it was, it was probably taken too fast. At least that was how it seemed, with no opportunity to smile or indeed to deepen.
It is no tall order to follow a performance of a Beethoven symphony with something on the scale of Turangalîla. For that alone, and despite very occasional evidence of tiredness, the LSO deserves great credit – but its performance was highly estimable in its own right, the distinctly unhelpful acoustic of the Barbican notwithstanding. This Introduction went un-photographed (although the person whose telephone rang for what seemed like at least a minute during ‘Développement de l’amour should summarily have been shot). Either my ears or the orchestra, or both, took a little time to adjust to that problematical acoustic; for once, the Royal Albert Hall might have been preferable. But the congested sound experienced at the beginning was no real impediment to the expository function of the movement, ‘expository’ certainly not being understood in a Beethovenian fashion. String swooping in tandem with Cynthia Miller’s expert ondes-Martenot playing, a portentous brass ‘statue’ theme, a glittering piano entry from Steven Osborne, contrast aplenty with the demure brace of clarinets portraying the ‘flower’ to the brass’s ‘statue’: all made their point in an atmosphere of madness, delirium even, which yet remained musically grounded in rhythmic and melodic insistence. ‘Chant d’amour 1’ sounded somewhat too frenetic at first; again, that may have been as much an acoustical as a musical problem, and again the point should not be exaggerated. The saccharine theme from violins and ondes possessed a suitable combination of naïveté and sheer weirdness. Messiaen’s technique of juxtaposition came across very clearly: perhaps too clearly?
At any rate, the first ‘Turangalîla’ movement provided some respite. (The fastidious Pierre Boulez could never quite bring himself to conduct the symphony as a whole, but conducted the ‘Turangalîla’ movements.) It is – and in performance, was – less blatant, sounding imbued with mystery that could claim to be genuinely spiritual, if that shop-soiled word has not entirely lost all meaning by now. Moreover, elements of the music seemed to look forward to the 1950s, the 1960s, even beyond; there is surely a glimpse of Stockhausen to be had here. Perhaps it was not surprising, however saddening it may have been, that some members of the audience rudely began to depart during this wonderfully sphinx-like movement.
The second ‘Chant d’amour’ had a splendidly perky woodwind opening. Its clockwork craziness – presentiments of Chronochromie? – increased when the section was joined by other instruments, leading unerringly into the ‘response’ of the love theme. Nott’s shaping here was exemplary. The movement ended in frankly sexual fashion, but that was as nothing compared to the ensuing ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’, its performance unabashed with respect to what we might call its cosmic silliness. I found myself wondering whether the inhabitants of another planet, or indeed an étoile somewhere, might already play this music. Goodness knows what acts it would accompany or presage…
‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ answered that question in no uncertain terms. Or at least such was the experience in a performance of great languor, even ‘insistent languor’, which apparent contradiction was suggested by Osborne’s piano commentary. As elsewhere, the pianist’s contribution was exemplary in its scintillation, quite the equal of a Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The second ‘Turangalîla’ movement was again welcome in its almost alien inscrutability after that spell in the garden of earthly delights. Now was the time for the LSO’s percussion truly to shine, and it did. Joy was felt in the combinatory aspects of the movement. There also seemed to be a welcome acknowledgement by Nott of its unhinged quality.
That telephonic interruption aside, ‘Développement de l’amour’ offered blazing climaxes which left little to the imagination. If not quite a cold shower, the third and final ‘Turangalîla’ movement at least presented a contrast of relative subtlety. Instrumental combinations fascinated, as did the notes ‘themselves’. It was beguilingly curious, and curiously beguiling. Musical processes were readily, revealingly apparent. The finale really had the sense of being a conclusion. It could hardly have been more exultant than some of what had passed before, but it certainly seemed imbued with homecoming, wherever this strangest of homes might be. This was a wonderful – in every way – conclusion to the LSO’s season. The final, prolonged, glowing chord sent shivers down the spine.