RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Steven Osborne (piano); Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena
rec. 20-24 June 2011, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
HYPERION CDA67816 [77:07]
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 label.
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 (review) 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 and atmospheric.
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 10.
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 so.
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.
A splendid representation on CD of Messiaen’s ambitious, tumultuous, superb score.
see also review by Dan Morgan (July 2012 Recording of the Month)