Juanjo Mena is not only Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic
but also Principal Guest Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic.
He could scarcely have chosen more of a blockbuster work for
what I believe to be his first recording with the Bergen orchestra
and for what is certainly his first appearance on the Hyperion
My colleague Dan Morgan recently gave a
very warm welcome to the download version of this release.
I haven’t heard the Tortelier version on Chandos that
he mentioned but I share his admiration for Previn’s reading.
Also highly estimable are the recordings by Rattle and by Nagano.
Nor must one overlook the very fine Ozawa traversal (review).
However, I’m unsure if the Ozawa recording is currently
available. There are several other versions of this huge score
in the catalogue - and I’ve read particularly good things
about the recordings by Chailly (Decca) and Myung-Whun Chung
(DG) - but these haven’t come my way.
Turangalîla was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky
for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1945 and it seems that
Messiaen was given a pretty free hand in terms of what he was
to write and the forces for which he was to score the work.
As Nigel Simeone writes in his very interesting booklet note,
the work, which wasn’t completed until 1948, began life
as a four-movement work and, like Topsy, just grew. Everything
about this vast score is on an epic scale. Cast - eventually
- in ten movements, it plays for nearly eighty minutes; the
orchestral forces are massive, though interestingly neither
a harp nor timpani are required, and the percussion section,
which often functions as a kind of gamelan, is particularly
impressive; not only is there a prodigious concertante
piano part but also Messiaen throws in for good measure a crucial
part for the exotic early electronic instrument, the ondes martenot,
which had only been invented in the late 1920s.
By the time the symphony was completed Koussevitzky was too
frail to undertake the première and, though apparently
delighted with the finished score, he entrusted the responsibility
of preparing and leading the first performance to his young
and richly talented protégé, Leonard Bernstein.
I had suspected that, after the first performances, Bernstein
never returned to the score and Nigel Simeone confirms that.
Indeed, he goes further, quoting a letter from Aaron Copland
to his fellow composer, Irvine Fine, in which he refers to “the
Messiaen Monster” and describes Bernstein’s reaction
to it as “cold, in spite of a brilliant job of conducting”.
In some ways that surprises me since I would have thought that
Turangalîla would have appealed to Bernstein’s
sense of the theatrical if nothing else. Some years ago the
Boston Symphony Orchestra issued a lavish CD set celebrating
the centenary of Symphony Hall and this contained a tantalising
snippet of Bernstein rehearsing the sixth movement prior to
the première. What one would give to hear a recording
of one of those first performances under his baton!
I first heardTurangalîla over forty years ago in
the Ozawa recording. I was completely baffled by it but persevered
and gradually came to know it and to surrender to it, almost
exclusively through recordings and broadcasts. Live performances
proved elusive, however, though I did get to one, in 1978, when
what was then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra gave it, under
Gilbert Amy, with Yvonne Loriod playing the piano. To my surprise
and delight Messiaen himself was present to acknowledge an enthusiastic
reception from what I recall as a fairly sparse audience in
Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. I had to wait over thirty
years to experience the symphony again in concert just recently
and I limbered up for that concert by spending most of that
day doing the bulk of my listening to this disc, including some
comparative sampling; the things one does for MusicWeb International!
Listening several times to Mena’s fine performance has
been an enthralling experience. Inevitably, in such a large
and complex score, there are a few things that one feels don’t
work quite as well as in other versions. However, it seems to
me that Mena has a tremendous grip on the score and a real sense
of its epic sweep. That sense of sweep, however, is not at the
expense of attention to detail; Mena clearly has every aspect
of this score at his fingertips. This can be heard especially
in the many delicate moments in the piece - the performance
of ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ is sensuous,
perfumed and done with great finesse. In the aforementioned
rehearsal sequence Bernstein refers to what he calls the “quiet
commotion” of the birdsong and insect noises - the piano,
gamelan percussion and exquisite woodwind solos - that decorate
the gentle love song played by the strings and ondes throughout
this movement. That’s beautifully done here.
Nor are the many loud and extrovert passages underplayed. Mena
and the Bergen heavy brass convey the sinister power of the
Theme of Statues; consistently the climaxes are truly immense
and, in Hyperion’s excellent recording, open up beautifully.
There’s tremendous precision and vitality in ‘Joie
du sang des étoiles’, where the headlong frenzy
of the joyful dance is breath-taking - and always controlled.
The last movement has all the celebratory sweep and élan
for which one could wish: the music veers between a glittering
toccata and imposing power while the final apotheosis of the
Theme of Love is saturated and ecstatic.
As you may have inferred, the playing of the Bergen Philharmonic
is first class. The score abounds in tricky rhythmic patterns
and details but so far as I can tell the musicians are never
caught out; their playing is precise and acute. Their dynamic
range is marvellous so we get the climaxes delivered with great
punch and presence while the quieter sections are properly hushed
Mena has the benefit of two magnificent and authoritative soloists.
Stephen Osborne has a strong reputation in Messiaen, not least
through his excellent account of Vingt Regards sur l‘Enfant
Jésus (CDA67351). Here, his pianism is prodigious.
In a live performance much of the piano part can be obscured
by the orchestra - the fifth movement is an obvious example
- and, after all, it’s a concertante role. However,
the microphones put the piano into better perspective and we
can hear Osborne give a commanding account of this hugely demanding
part. I enjoyed, for example, his superb cadenza towards the
end of ‘Chant d’amour II’ and right at the
close of that movement he plays with hushed refinement - as
does everyone else. His birdsong in ‘Jardin du sommeil
d’amour’ is captivating.
Cynthia Miller has taken part in over 100 performances of Turangalîla
- an astonishing statistic - but, surprisingly, she’s
never recorded it until now. She’s masterly in the way
she puts her instrument’s part across. She judges to perfection
the sweetness of the tone of the ondes, never overdoing that
aspect so that the sweetness tips over into saccharine. And
some of her swoops up and down the range of the instrument have
an unworldly thrill to them. It seems to me that Hyperion has
recorded the ondes a little closer than on some of the other
recordings I’ve heard. I welcome that. Surely Messiaen
wanted this unique timbre to register, though not dominate.
I’m particularly pleased that the music in the instrument’s
lower register comes through well because that is a vital element
and at those points the sound is amazing.
So, viewed in isolation this Mena recording is a strong proposition;
but how does it shape up in the face of the competition? I’ve
been able to compare it with Previn (EMI, Abbey Road Studios,
1977), Rattle (EMI, Warwick Arts Centre, 1986), Ozawa (RCA,
venue unknown, 1967) and Nagano (Teldec, Philharmonie, Berlin,
2000; I believe this recording comes from live performances).
I must be honest and say that I’ve not listened to all
the versions complete - there are limits! - but I know
each of the comparators sufficiently well to believe that the
samplings are representative. I compared movements 1, 5, 6 and
Mena’s performance and recording is sharp and clear. I
hadn’t listened to the Previn performance for some time
but I was surprised how much impact it had. The recording has
lots of presence and power; it’s typical of EMI’s
best efforts around that time. I sense that Previn is a touch
warmer in his overall approach compared to Mena. Previn’s
fine pianist, Michel Beroff, is a bit more prominent than is
Stephen Osborne for Mena but we don’t hear as much of
the Ondes (Jeanne Loriod) on the EMI recording. In the Rattle
recording there’s more space around the sound compared
to Previn - Warwick Arts Centre is a good-sized venue - and
I like that. As with Previn, the piano (the excellent Peter
Donohoe) is well to the fore, the ondes (Tristan Murail) less
My intention had been to compare all the recordings without
touching the controls on my equipment but after the first movement
I hoisted the white flag so far as Ozawa was concerned. His
recording is cut - or transferred to CD - at a higher level
than the others and it was necessary to reduce the volume control
by three notches for comfortable listening. Even so, the performance
still packs a considerable punch. Perhaps it’s a bit too
forceful at times - the Theme of Statues is massive and deliberate,
for example. Ozawa has the inestimable benefit of both Loriod
sisters for his soloists. Nagano’s recording is billed
as using the revision of the score which Messiaen made in 1990.
I don’t know how extensive the revision was; I suspect
it’s more to do with points of detail as there’s
nothing glaringly apparent. I don’t know if Mena uses
this version; he’s the only other one of our candidates
who would have been able so to do. Nagano is very dynamic at
the start and his sound is closest, I think, to Mena’s
in terms of offering a concert hall balance; perhaps Nagano’s
sound is a little more distant?
In the fifth movement Ozawa is the most viscerally thrilling
though I think his gamelan percussion is too closely recorded,
even when the CD is played at a lower volume. However, all five
conductors are very impressive here. So are they all in the
languorous sixth movement. Previn is particularly affectionate;
perhaps his, with some outstanding playing from the LSO woodwind,
is the most poetic account. Nagano is appreciably swifter than
his peers, getting through the movement in 10:39; the next quickest
is Ozawa (11:54) and all the others take over 12:00. In fairness
to Nagano I don’t think one would be aware of this relative
swiftness if listening to his recording in isolation.
However, I’m sure you would be aware of a fast tempo if
you listened to his account of the finale. This whips by in
an astonishing 6:31 - all the others take seven minutes or more.
The Berlin Philharmonic articulates the music with jaw-dropping
virtuosity but I couldn’t escape the feeling of “because
we can”. It’s too frenetic for my taste; impetuosity
and energy taken to extremes. Not long ago the Nagano version
was selected as the library choice for this work on BBC Radio
3’s CD Review programme but, for all its other excellent
features, this one movement would rule it out for me. Incidentally,
the Mena disc wasn’t considered during that programme
as it hadn’t then been released. Returning to the comparisons,
Ozawa is hugely exciting in the finale, relishing Messiaen’s
primary colours. Yvonne Loriod is commandingly emphatic at the
piano in this movement. Previn and Rattle both give fine accounts,
in line with expectations raised by the rest of their respective
recordings. Mena isn’t as volatile here as Ozawa or Nagano
but there’s abundant energy and rhythmic drive in his
reading and, as elsewhere, I just love the contribution of Cynthia
Miller’s ondes martenot.
So is Mena “best in show”, picking up the equestrian
metaphor at the start of Dan Morgan’s review? I’m
going to pass on that one, not because I’m copping out
but becauseTurangalîla is such a huge, multi-faceted
score that it’s asking a lot for one performance or interpretation
to emerge head and shoulders - or even by a short head - over
the competition. It’s a virtuoso score which has clearly
inspired the performers on all the discs I’ve evaluated
to give of their very best. What I will say, however, is that
this newcomer is a very strong contender for the attention of
collectors. The playing is splendid, the soloists marvellous
and I think Juanjo Mena has a tremendous grip on the score and
doesn’t put a foot wrong. Factor in an excellent effort
by the Hyperion engineers and you have a splendid representation
on CD of Messiaen’s ambitious, tumultuous, superb score.
see also review by Dan
Morgan (July 2012 Recording of the