A Thrilling Turangalîla Memorably Concludes the Philharmonia’s City of Light Series

Debussy and Messiaen: Samuel Coles (flute), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martinot), Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.5.2015 (AS)
Debussy: Syrinx
La Damoiselle élue
Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony


It was an imaginative piece of programme planning to begin the Philharmonia’s last concert in its series “City of Light – Paris, 1900–1950” with Syrinx, Debussy’s brief piece for solo flute, written in 1913 during the composer’s late maturity. The Philharmonia’s principal flautist Samuel Coles strode on to an otherwise empty stage and into a circle of light that illuminated an otherwise darkened auditorium. It might have been a daunting moment for him to know that he was about to perform for both the Festival Hall audience and those listening to Radio 3’s live relay, but he played confidently and most beautifully. Many players treat this piece with a certain cool reserve, but Coles invested it with warm emotion, to its great benefit on this occasion.

We were then taken back 24 years, musically, from Syrinx to Debussy’s cantata La damoiselle élue, completed when the composer was 27. This is a setting of a French prose translation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, The Blessed Damozel. The work is rarely heard in concert performances, but most unusually this was its second London performance within the space of a few months. Such neglect is unjust, for although it does not show the composer as we know him from more familiar later works, its gently sensuous charm weaves its own spell, and is most beautifully written for both vocal forces and a surprisingly large orchestra. The fresh tonal quality of the youthful chorus was a delight, as was the singing of both soloists, while Salonen drew some lovely sounds from the orchestra in his respectfully refined but expressive direction.

When the audience returned after the interval, the stage had been transformed. In a line across its front were positioned a xylophone, celeste, keyed glockenspiel, ondes martinot (with its loudspeaker), and a centre-stage piano. At the back of the large orchestral ensemble prescribed by Messiaen was a large percussion section that interestingly excludes timpani.

A complex array of microphones no doubt provided a good balance for Radio 3 listeners, but this was one of those occasions when a work needed to be experienced in the hall itself, and both heard and seen for its full effect to be assimilated.

The performance had several notable features. Quite extraordinarily in this 75-minute-long work Pierre-Laurent Aimard played the piano part from memory, and with exceptional panache and virtuosity. Valérie Hartmann-Claverie also performed her important ondes-martinot part without music and with confident authority: it must be difficult to balance this electronic instrument within the orchestral texture, but its operator ensured that its contribution was effectively heard yet did not unduly dominate the sound picture, as can happen. The Philharmonia’s playing in what must be a most taxing score was superlative in all departments, while Salonen, who has long been associated with the music of Messiaen and this work in particular, conducted with great flair and a clear sense of devotion.

Finally the music itself – what a wonderfully inspired composition it is. Each of its ten movements has its own character, and despite its great length it has the quality of being able to hold listeners attentions throughout, despite the fact that it isn’t “easy” music to assimilate during a single hearing. There doesn’t seem to be a note too many at any point or anything that doesn’t fit within the large overall structure.

The Festival Hall audience responded to the performance with justifiably unrestrained delight.

Alan Sanders            

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