United Kingdom Messiaen: Steven Osborne (piano), Cynthia Miller (ondes Martinot), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 24.5.2017. (AS)
Messiaen – L’ascension; Turangalîla-symphonie
Messiaen’s orchestral version of L’ascension was completed in 1933 when the composer was only 25 years old (rather strangely he wrote his version for organ shortly after the orchestral score, replacing the third movement with entirely new piece, ‘Transports de joie’). Already the work bears the fingerprints of the composer’s mature style in its intriguing textures, rhythmic freedom and colourful orchestration. The last movement, ‘Prayer of Christ Rising to His Father’ has an unashamedly sweet quality of writing for the strings which undoubtedly foreshadows the composer’s enthusiastic later use of the recently invented ondes Martinot. Apart from one or two fumbled notes in the opening ‘Majesty of Christ Asking Glory from His Father’, scored for brass and woodwind only, the work was given a radiant performance under Oramo’s direction.
This was my fourth hearing of the Turangalîla Symphony within the space of about two years, and although all have been of the highest class this performance surpassed all the others.
Oramo has a particular gift for unravelling the most complex scores not only with exemplary clarity but in a particularly fresh, communicative manner. In this case the solo instruments became more merged into the overall texture than one has heard before. Steven Osborne’s brilliance in this work was displayed in a Prom performance under Juanjo Mena at a Prom two years ago. On this occasion his virtuosity and spiritual involvement were no less than before, but except in the passages where solo piano takes the limelight, his contribution was not allowed to dominate the ensemble, but to be an important part of it. Glockenspiel and vibraphone similarly provided their glint to the overall tonal blend, rather than superimposing their tones on it.
Cynthia Miller studied the ondes Martinot with Messiaen’s sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod, and as in her 2016 Festival Hall performance under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel she showed fine artistry in her important solo part. No doubt things could go horribly wrong if this powerful instrument fell into the hands of an insensitive player, but Miller showed great judgement in matters of balance, bringing a joyful, outgoing verve at times when such a quality was needed, but appropriate restraint in more reflective passages.
The outgoing, dancelike fifth movement, ‘Joy of the Blood of the Stars’ is the one that most blatantly appeals to an audience, and Oramo’s brilliantly extrovert conducting invoked whoops of delight from one or two listeners, which to judge from their immediate gestures of repentance, was entirely involuntary, though understandable. If Oramo was the hero of the evening with his masterful conducting, then the BBCSO also deserved – and received – the warmest appreciation for its undoubtedly virtuoso playing. With prominence usually given to the four independent London orchestras, this ensemble sometimes finds itself at the back of the queue so far as appreciation is concerned. But on this occasion it showed that it can achieve results which are on a par with the best that London can offer.