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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Turangalîla Symphony (1946-8) [76:59]
Yvonne Loriod (piano); Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot);
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
Recorded December 1967 ADD
BMG RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876 59418 2 [76:59]


When this recording first appeared in 1968 it was something of a ground-breaker. It was made during the years (1965-1969) that Seiji Ozawa was Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The booklet note claims that this was the first recording of the work made in the Western hemisphere. Of much less importance, it was the medium through which I first encountered the piece. I was introduced to it, not long after its release, by my old teacher and friend (and sometime contributor to this site), Adrian Smith. The recording was spread over three LP sides and with equal enterprise the fourth side was taken up by a recording of November Steps by Toru Takemitsu. I well remember how baffling the piece seemed at first. Happily, repeated auditions of the work, both in Ozawaís recording and others, helped me to get to grips with it. I also attended, with Adrian, a memorable concert performance in a sparsely-filled Free Trade Hall, Manchester, which was given by what was then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra under Gilbert Amy, with Yvonne Loriod playing the piano part. Memorably, the evening was crowned by the appearance on-stage of Messiaen himself to acknowledge the applause.

I mention these recollections simply because Turangalîla is that sort of piece. It is, perhaps, one of the ultimate pièces díoccasion, one which is almost bound to make a huge impact on the listener through its sheer scale, the audacity and voluptuousness of its orchestration and the vast forces required to perform it. It is also distinguished by memorable thematic material and copious musical invention.

It was commissioned in 1945 by Serge Koussevitzky and was premièred by the Boston Symphony in 1949 under Koussevitzkyís protégé, Leonard Bernstein. The score must have stretched even the virtuosity of the Bostonians at that time. As for Bernsteinís performance, Iíd give anything to hear it. Thereís a tantalizing glimpse of what it might have been like thanks to the inclusion of a rehearsal snippet, just a few moments long, in the BSOís Symphony Hall Centennial collection of CDs. I have read that there is a recording of the first performance in the American Library of Congress and it would be a major coup if someone could organise a CD release of that.

But Ozawaís recording was the first mainstream recording and for that reason alone justifies its status as a landmark. In fact, I think it merits serious consideration by collectors for other reasons too. It must be 35 years since I heard it and since then Iíve collected very fine recordings by Previn and Rattle (both EMI). However, returning to this Ozawa version Iíve been struck by its power, its refinement, its verve, its sensitivity and its overall excellence.

For those unfamiliar with the work, the title itself calls for some explanation. Itís a combination of two Sanskrit words, which can be rendered into English in a subtle variety of ways. My preferred translation is by the composer and Messiaen biographer, Robert Sherlaw Johnson who, quoting Messiaen himself explains it thus: "lîla, meaning love, sport, amusement or play, in the sense of divine action on the "cosmosÖ.; and turanga, meaning time which flows, movement or rhythm." So the work is, in Messiaenís words, quoted in the booklet, "a song of love; a hymn to the superhuman joy that transcends everything."

Cast in ten movements, the work requires a vast orchestra including strings, triple wind, a huge brass section and an enormous battery of percussion. This last is crucial to the sound of the orchestra for it is constituted like a gamelan, with an enormous variety of instruments. Tellingly, Messiaen eschews the use of timpani and, with the exception of a bass drum and the ubiquitous gongs, most of the percussion instruments are those which make bright, often metallic sounds. In addition to all this there are crucial parts for two keyboard soloists. One of these is an ondes martenot, the strange, electronic keyboard instrument which can only sound one note at a time but which is also capable of the most amazing glissando effects, here employed most vividly. The other is a piano. The huge piano part is one of formidable difficulty and is the principal producer of the myriad birdsong sounds that one hears in the score. In this present performance the Loriod sisters, who played in the workís première, I believe, display consummate virtuosity.

In many respects Turangalîla is over the top. Its length is enormous, its invention is prodigal and some of the thematic material and harmonies are lush almost to the point of excess. Is it hedonistic? Probably. Is it a self-indulgent wallow? Definitely not. One needs to listen past the many huge climaxes and instances of ultra-sweet harmony to discover a work that teems with invention and compositional skill. The rhythmic ingenuity for one thing is absolutely staggering. At times also the contrapuntal skill with which Messiaen deals with his material is tremendous. The melodic invention is also of a high order; many of the themes are very memorable and Messiaen uses motto themes to unify the work; these are helpful signposts to the listener. Finally, the orchestration is that of a master. The score is a riot of colour but Messiaen mixes his palette most skilfully and while there are many passages of almost deafening volume for each of these there are two or three of marvellous tranquillity and subtlety. The score is a mixture of awesome musical power and great beauty.

How do Ozawa and his players acquit themselves? Well, the short answer is that they serve Messiaenís great vision uncommonly well. This is the sort of music in which Ozawa excels. Throughout, rhythms are tight and precise. One litmus test is the fifth movement, Joie du sang des étoiles (Joy of the starís blood). This is a real virtuoso test, a sweeping, exciting toccata. The Toronto players pass this stiff test with flying colours and give a truly envigorating account of this headlong movement. At the very end thereís a huge chord, thrillingly capped by a sustained high note on the ondes. The chord seems to go on for ever and is gradually drenched in gong sounds. Itís a tremendous moment, brilliantly captured here.

Immediately after that comes the longest movement, a daringly slow and hugely atmospheric piece entitled Jardin du sommeil díamour (Garden of loveís sleep.) Itís sensuous, languorous and erotic (and perhaps unsurprisingly itís the subject of the Bernstein rehearsal snippet to which I referred earlier.) Against a background of slow-moving chords on the strings, enriched by the unique sound of the ondes, the piano, woodwinds and percussion trace a delicate filigree of sounds. This decoration is most sensitively applied here. Some will find this movement completely self-indulgent. For myself, Iím glad to surrender to it. The booklet notes print a commentary by Messiaen on each movement, abridged from the notes that accompanied the original release. If memory serves me correctly after all these years his original notes concluded with a comment, sadly omitted here: "Hush! The lovers are sleeping. Letís not wake them."

Iíve mentioned two movements specifically. I could cite many other examples but it would take far longer than the scope of this review permits to do justice to this work or this recording. Though it has received a bad press in certain quarters on account of alleged self-indulgence, Turangalîla is a score of enormous importance in the history of music in the second half of the twentieth century. It is known to have influenced a large number of composers. For those with ears to hear it, its colourful optimism must have been a liberating force after the grim, austere days of the Second World War. As to this performance I can only say that in my opinion it is wholly worthy of this tumultuous score. Ozawa directs with panache and flair and he evinces total commitment to the music and understanding of it. The orchestra respond magnificently. The recorded sound is vivid and atmospheric.

Iím not sure if this performance has been available on CD before but it should be snapped up without delay. In my opinion Turangalîla is a seminal work and a masterpiece. Right now I canít think of a better way to experience this work than through this full-blooded yet sensitive reading and I recommend this CD urgently.

John Quinn



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