Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO in Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie at the Barbican, yesterday. Sandwiched between Bernard Haitink’s Mahler and Bruckner concerts this week, tickets didn’t sell as well as they should have. Luckily, the broadcast is on BBC Radio 3. With Cynthia Millar playing the ondes martenot and Steven Osbormne on piano, this was class. How I wished I hadn’t chickened out of the long commute and returned my tickets. This is an extraordinarily “visual” piece: you can’t know it if you haven’t, at least once, participated in performance, even if you’re just listening. It’s a communal event, like a Pagan Mass.
One of Sakari Oramo’s many strengths is his sense of humour, so this Turangalîla-Symphonie was wonderfully zany, capturing the crazy free spirits in the piece without losing the tension that keeps the whole, sprawling panorama together through ten sections, each clearly distinct. A vivacious performance, the BBCSO on message and lively.
The seeds of Turangalîla were planted when Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod fell desperately in love, but, being strictly religious, they didn’t sleep together til they married decades later. Turangalîla-Symphonie, the fruit of their passion, is sex, sublimated in music. Not for nothing the two principal solo parts are written for ondes martenot and piano, the piece operating as a dialogue for two poles united in a dazzling landscape. Boulez adored Messiaen, and vice versa, but this was the one piece that Boulez could not bring himself to conduct. “Brothel music”, he quipped, which is true, for the piece is explicitly erotic. Since Messiaen was Boulez’s father figure, it must have felt like watching your parents at it. You know it happened, or you wouldn’t have been born, but……
When Turangalîla premiered in 1948, one writer referred to its “fundamental emptiness… appalling melodic tawdriness…..a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. He had a point. If ever there was music in Technicolor, this is it, complete with cinematic swirls of the ondes martenot. These days, when we hear the ondes martenot, we don’t necessarily associate it with cutting-edge Varèse, but with Béla Lugosi. They don’t even make movies like that anymore. Not even B movies. Perhaps Turangalîla suffers from having been premiered in the wrong time and place. In 1948, Messiaen was largely unknown in the United States, so Koussevitsky’s commission was very high profile indeed. The premiere was given by Leonard Bernstein, who probably relished the Hollywoodesque extravagance of the piece. But there’s a hidden background. Bernstein was influenced, indirectly, by Nadia Boulanger, who thought music ended with mid-period Stravinsky, and even turned her back on him when he deviated from diktat. She could not stand Messiaen: they operated rival salons, hers catering mainly to English speakers, his more liberal and “European”. Yvonne Loriod was originally a Boulanger protégé, but when she took up with Messiaen, Boulanger cut her dead. So perhaps the world wasn’t ready for Turangalîla in 1948.
For Turangalîla-Symphonie is a shockingly modern work. If at times it seems to parody the idea of Romantic Music as defined by Hollywood, why not? Messiaen’s values stemmed from medieval traditions of religious ecstasy, which gave 19th-century French Romanticism a particular flavour, different to Austro-German tradition. Messiaen was not “doing Hollywood”. Like other Europeans emerging from the hardships of war and rationing, Messaien was responding to the liberating idea of uninhibited exuberance. Turangalîla-Symphonie would have seemed like an explosion of blinding colour after years of repression. The sensuality also connected to long-standing French fascination with exotic, non-European cultures.
Wild as the piece is, though, it is also sophisticated. Its complex rhythms need to be played with vigorous precision, so the textures stay vividly bright and clear. In Messiaen, colour is essential. The best performances I’ve heard have had a taut savagery that brings out the muscular energy in the piece. Bad performances are chemically coloured soup. Fortunately, the BBC SO can let their hair down without losing their innate stylishness. Fundamental to this piece, and to Messiaen’s work in general, is the powerful pulse, often expressed in craggy ostinato. Geology in music, maybe: it represents a life force, nature itself and, for Messiaen, derived from God. Thus Oramo shaped the crazy flights of wild abandon without losing sight of their place in the structure. Messiaen didn’t use the ondes martenot by accident: it’s an instrument that plays with unseen forces of physics and sound. The protagonists in Turangalîla-Symphonie are ecstatic because they’ve found release. They wouldn’t be transformed if they hadn’t had something to be liberated from in the first place.
Lovely L’Ascension beforehand, too, demonstrating how far Turangalîla-Symphonie propels Messiaen forward.
Original Source: Sublimated sex : Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, Oramo BBCSO