United Kingdom Prom 6 – Gershwin and Messiaen: Angela Hewitt (piano), Cynthia Millar (ondes Martinot), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.7.2018. (AS)
Gershwin – An American in Paris
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie
The opening movement of the Turangalîla-Symphony, simply entitled ‘Introduction’, sets the scene by introducing two themes that will occur throughout the work – the loud ‘statue’ theme, as described by the composer, who called the quieter one his ‘flower’ theme. As the excellent programme note commented, the term ‘flower’ rather masks the nature of the music itself, which is decidedly sensual in nature. Or should be. At once in this movement the virtues of Oramo’s reading were apparent: he obtained superlative playing by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, often as its best in complex twentieth-century repertoire such as this, and the music was presented in an idiomatic, faithful fashion. But what it rather lacked was high passion and that innate exotic quality which at its extremes of expression in this work can exert a powerful, almost hypnotic effect on the listener. Super-efficiency rather than excitement ruled this exposition.
Notable too was the fact that (in the hall, but not maybe for BBC Radio 3 listeners) the balance went slightly against the crucial contributions of both the still weird-sounding ondes Martinot and the piano when it was played in ensemble. These qualities of performance, good and not-so-good, continued throughout the next four movements – the fourth, ‘Chant d’amour’ being especially well executed, with a particularly effective cadenza contribution from Angela Hewitt. (Hewitt’s association with Messiaen’s music goes back to her early career and artistic contact with the composer’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, who was of course the leading early exponent of Messiaen’s piano music.) But the fifth movement ‘Joie de sang des étoiles’ didn’t have joy or even much spring it its step: it was more a hectic, muscle-bound riot of sound.
In movement six, ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’, slow-moving as the title suggests, Hewitt’s insight began to make a strong effect, and her playing, beautiful and poetic, inspired Oramo and his players to greater heights of now quieter expression. And from now on Hewitt’s artistry tended to emphasise the difference between her own imagination and the more workaday Oramo, though the conductor managed No.7, the second ‘Turangalîla’ movement, very skilfully. At last in the ‘Final’ there emerged some spring in Oramo’s step: the rhythms were lighter, and a real quality of joy was conveyed. So all ended well. If I don’t discuss the contribution of the vastly experienced Cynthia Millar (who has played the ondes Martinot in this work at six Proms since 1986), it is because as heard in the hall at least, her instrument was not given as much prominence as it should have been.
Unfortunately travel chaos prevented me from arriving at the hall in time to hear the Gershwin work.