Turangalîla-Symphonie at the Three Choirs Festival: A Formidable Achievement

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (3), Wagner, Messiaen. Alwyn Mellor (soprano), Steven Osborne (piano), Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes-martenot), Philharmonia Orchestra, Jac van Steen (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 26.7.2015 (JQ)

Wagner – Prelude and Liebestod (Tristan und Isolde)


Since the Philharmonia became the Three Choirs Festival’s resident orchestra a few years ago a large wagon in which the instruments are transported has stood outside the host cathedral throughout each festival week. However, I don’t recall seeing previously a quite substantial trailer as well. But, then, the Philharmonia has never played Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie at a previous festival and I imagine the additional transport was required in order to bring to Hereford the vast percussion battery that this huge score requires.

How times change! A performance of either of the two works on this programme would probably have been inconceivable perhaps even ten years ago. But the Festival is far from being the bastion of conservatism that some detractors have suggested, as a glance at the full programme with its raft of recent music confirms each year. With this ambitious programme Geraint Bowen widened the festival’s frontiers even further.

It was a shrewd move to preface Messiaen’s huge symphony with music from Tristan und Isolde for the French composer took significant inspiration from Wagner’s exploration of the Tristan myth in writing Turangalîla. Alwyn Mellor has essayed a number of major Wagner roles, including Brünnhilde. Here, of course, she had the luxury of singing the Liebestod without the preceding demands on her voice of the rest of the opera. Her voice is a sumptuous instrument and she had no trouble in projecting even quiet passages into the big space of the cathedral. Her impassioned performance had been well prefaced by the ardent account of the Prelude given by the Philharmonia and Jac van Steen and they supported her excellently during the Liebestod. This was a fine “bleeding chunk” of Wagner, warmly received by the audience.

Everything about Turangalîla-Symphonie is on a vast scale. Indeed, it might be said by even its admirers – of which I am most definitely one – that it is something of a musical temple to excess. Cast in no less than ten movements it played for 80 minutes in this performance – which is about par for the course. It requires an enormous orchestra, including triple woodwind, 12 brass, at least 8 percussionists – as they were hidden from view I couldn’t see how many players were on duty tonight – celeste and strings. Not content with all that Messiaen incorporated a virtuoso part for solo piano, written for Yvonne Loriod, who I was once lucky enough to see perform the work in public. Last and by no means least, there’s a crucial part for that strange invention, the ondes-martenot, an amplified keyboard instrument. Though capable of sounding only one note at a time the ondes has the unique ability to produce a swooning glissando effect, which Messiaen exploited to the full here. The score was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by its legendary conductor Serge Koussevitzky who gave Messiaen licence to write – and orchestrate – on a huge scale. In the end Koussevitzky passed the première to his protégé, Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the first performance in Boston in 1949. Remarkably, Bernstein is said to have loathed the score and he never conducted it again. For me that’s a source of both surprise and regret for I can’t help feeling that Turangalîla would have been greatly suited to Lennie.

Tonight on the podium we had Jac van Steen. I expected that we would be in safe hands for I understand that he has significant expertise in contemporary music. Furthermore I’ve experienced his ability to control and communicate a large-scale score, having seen him conduct a couple of Maher symphonies, including a very fine account of the Second at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester (review). I’m happy to say that my expectations were not met: they were exceeded. Mr van Steen controlled the complex score with complete assurance and clarity, his beat unfailingly clear and his cues and gestures towards the orchestra precise. But he did far more than control the performance. He evidenced absolute command of the score and commitment to it and he communicated his vision of it compellingly to the orchestra. My goodness, I was seated in row 27 and I felt energised by his conducting! This was a virtuoso display of the art of the conductor.

I’m sure it helped that the Philharmonia are well versed in this enormously demanding score. Just a couple of months ago they gave what was apparently a superb account of it under their principal conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen as the culmination of their year-long concert series, ‘City of Light – Paris 1900-1950’ (review). Tonight they played the score with gusto but also with great finesse – despite the vast orchestration there are many passages that require great delicacy and subtlety. Inevitably, in the resonant acoustic of the cathedral some inner detail that one can hear on a recording or in a purpose-built concert hall was lost but, having been apprehensive that the acoustic might blunt the music’s impact, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail that registered. Certainly the rhythmic energy of the music was not compromised.

The two crucial Concertante roles were expertly taken. Steven Osborne is an acknowledged expert exponent of Messiaen’s piano music – I heard him give an unforgettable account of Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus a couple of years ago (review) – and he is the pianist on Juanjo Mena’s splendid 2011 Hyperion recording of Turangalîla (review). Here, his command and virtuosity were confirmed at a very early stage in his dynamic account of the cadenza-like passage in the first movement, Introduction. Several similar opportunities were grasped during the performance but Osborne was just as alive to the subtle passages in the score. The sixth movement, Jardin du sommeil d’amour, is a languidly erotic idyll as two lovers doze in a garden. Here all is sweetness and gentle radiance as we are folded into the warm embrace of Messiaen’s music. Throughout this episode the pianist is ever-active, decorating the musical texture with filigree writing inspired by Messiaen’s beloved bird song. Osborne’s playing here was ideal, projecting the sound of the carolling birds with just enough strength that one was well aware of their presence but not to such an extent that one felt the garden was, in fact, an aviary.

In this movement – and in many other parts of the score – the ondes-martenot plays a critical role. In the Jardin its quiet sounds swoon gently, adding a generous amount of sweetness to the ravishing sounds of the orchestral strings, woodwind and tinkling percussion. It can be difficult to get the balance of the ondes right but I felt that Valérie Hartmann-Claverie balanced her instrument expertly so that we were properly aware of the instrument’s important role without it ever dominating. Mind you, she is very well versed in playing this score: she took part in the Philharmonia’s London performance in May and she appears on at least two recordings of the work. Quite often the contribution of the ondes is, you might say, all sweetness and light but it has a wild side to it as well. Its sound can pierce though the noise of the full orchestra to an almost scary effect. It’s prominent in such a fashion in two of the most celebrated movements in the work. The fifth movement, Joie du sang des étoiles is a hedonistic wild ride, which was exuberantly delivered here, the ondes capping the vast ensemble excitingly. And in the last movement of all, Final, the other-worldly sound of the ondes added significantly to the sense of joyous abandon.

This performance of Turangalîla-Symphonie was a formidable achievement by all concerned. I was both thrilled and gripped. The combination of Messiaen’s daring, endlessly fascinating music – vividly coloured and rhythmically ingenious – the committed conducting of Jac van Steen and the superb skills of the solo and orchestral players meant that one’s attention stayed relentlessly focussed throughout. I imagine the same was true of the audience who, when the last blazing chord had come to an end, greeted the performance with an ovation.

It was heartening to see the cathedral virtually full to hear this challenging and, surely for many, unfamiliar score. And lest it should be thought that the audience was comprised of Messiaen devotees who had come from far and wide for the fairly rare chance to hear this score live my sense was that this was far from being the case. It seemed to me that the majority of the audience were comprised of Three Choirs regulars which made it all the more heartening that work and performance were greeted with acclaim, many of the audience on their feet. Contrary to what some still believe the Three Choirs audience is not a conservative, hidebound group. They heard something quite extraordinary this evening and they loved it.

John Quinn   

Full details of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival are at www.3choirs.org

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