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]
What a curious yet compelling work Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie is. Its scale and complexity should result in it being banished to reference books with brave concert promoters and record producers rarely risking the huge cost and effort involved in mounting a performance. Yet it belongs to that small blessed group of works whose very vastness tantalises and intrigues the music-loving public and performers alike. Other pieces in this cost-no-object elite include Mahler’s big choral symphonies and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Indeed, the mention of Mahler is not as spurious or simply scale-related as one might imagine. Written just after World War II, Turangalîla, for all its modernistic approach to rhythm, harmony and structure in some ways also represents the glorious last hurrah of what might be termed the super-symphony.
When the parameters of the CD were being quantified and agreed it has been said that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was used as the single disc template - in many ways Turangalîla could have provided as good a definition. Certainly, since the advent of the compact disc this has been a ‘lucky’ work. It has attracted many of the star conductors, soloists and orchestras and has been used by recording companies as a kind of test of their technical virility. Aside from the version under consideration here I know three others well; Previn with Béroff and the LSO on EMI, Chailly with Thibaudet and the Concertgebouw on Decca and lastly Salonen with Crossley and the Philharmonia on Sony/CBS. To that list can be honourably added Rattle on EMI, Chung (supervised by the composer on DG), Tortelier on Chandos, Ozawa on RCA, Wit on Naxos and Nagano on Teldec for starters. The one glaring omission from this pantheon is Bernstein. This is surprising on two counts; he conducted the premiere and the piece, with its gloriously hedonistic, indeed romantic sound-world and drivingly dramatic climaxes would have suited Bernstein down to the ground. Perhaps the 1960s and 1970s during Bernstein’s golden age in New York were not the years technically or commercially to ‘risk’ a recording.
So how does this new disc measure up? Simple answer; very well indeed. Hyperion has a reputation for excellence, although until recently they have not been a label renowned for discs of large orchestral works. Perhaps buoyed by the deserved success of their release of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony in 2011, this is a triumph for all concerned. Conductor Juanjo Mena impressed recently with his debut disc with the BBCPO on Chandos. Likewise, the Bergen Philharmonic has been little short of revelatory whether playing Stravinsky or Grieg on BIS or Halvorsen on Chandos. Add two featured soloists steeped in performing Messiaen and it looks more and more like a sure-fire winner. As I said, this work has been lucky on disc and good though the new one is I am not sure that it displaces any of the other versions in my affections; matches yes, supplants …. I am not so sure. The reason for this is simple; Turangalîla sprawls itself across some eighty minutes with a profligacy of mood, style and music that makes any single ‘best-buy’ label seem rather foolish. Swings and roundabouts are very much order of the day with the different versions trading minuscule advantages. Not surprisingly the Hyperion disc is one of the best recorded. This is not just a case of the glorious sound captured in the excellent Grieghallen but also the artistic choices made by the production team. The terrifyingly complex layers of Messiaen’s orchestral textures are brilliantly handled. Steven Osborne’s superb handling of the concertante piano part is balanced to perfection - always audible, dominant when necessary but never overbearing. In fact exactly what the concertante implies; a musical first amongst equals. Subtler but perhaps even more skilful is the handling of the other ‘solo’ instrument - the ondes martenot played by Cynthia Millar. Unlike the piano, which often advances the musical content of the work, the ondes martenot has far more to do with the unique timbral/textural qualities of the piece. After all, it is an early monophonic electronic instrument and as such cannot contribute nearly as much to the harmonic or percussive character of the symphony. Other recordings are defeated by this simple concept feeling obliged to place the instrument in a solo perspective. The Hyperion team judge this to perfection placing Millar back within the ensemble allowing the ondes martenot to add a spectral aural halo. The orchestral playing is - as implied earlier - absolutely top rank and on this showing the Bergen players have nothing to fear in comparison to any of the other world class ensembles who have recorded this work. Mena - again helped by the clarity and richness of the Hyperion recording - shows an excellent ear for orchestral balance. I like very much the way the great brass monoliths that punctuate the score are balanced from the bottom up - the first only some 30 seconds into the work. He finds textures throughout that had quite escaped me before in particular relating this work to Messiaen’s great body of organ compositions. Likewise, the extended moments of still rapture are as well executed as I have ever heard them. If Mena gains with the sounds he generates, he fractionally loses on matters of tempo. I like Chailly’s more nervously motoric approach to the brisker movements - again the very opening provides a good example; the marvellous Concertgebouw all snap and bite but then let down by a balance which allows the - relatively - unimportant piano trills to overwhelm the aforementioned brass monolith. Again this is all a matter of degree - the only section I was relatively disappointed with in this new version was the famous central scherzo: Joie du sang des étoiles. Mena is the slowest of my four comparative versions at 6:42 and Salonen the fastest at 6:16. Not that it is simply a matter of velocity - the sense of elemental joy is key. Ever so slightly Mena bounces along in a perfectly merry but rather un-wild way. Previn is excellent - the ondes martenot too prominent though - with an unleashed LSO playing with less total control than their Norwegian counterparts but greater abandon. Chailly scores well in this movement although one notices that his piano is not nearly as well recorded as Osborne for Mena. Where Mena is without compare is in the sixth movement, which by virtue of its near-central position in the ten movement work and by being the longest of the ten functions as the emotional core. Titled Jardin du sommeil d'amour, Mena, Osborne et al are near perfection. They capture the timeless rapture, the languor and sensual delight of the movement quite brilliantly. For all the ‘big’ exciting moments in which Turangalîla abounds perhaps it is most impressive, most individual here. It is easy to forget the pointillist sparseness of much of the scoring and here again the plaudits must go to the Hyperion team for the skill with which, both technically and musically the music is made to cohere. The sheer tonal beauty of the playing is of especial note.
An excellent liner-note by Nigel Simeone highlights the mixed reception the work received at its premiere. It remains one of the last large-scale, unashamedly contemporary scores to have a place of any kind in the repertoire. Messiaen explored more contemplative paths on a similar scale with works such as La Transfiguration De Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ but it strikes me that this is his most successful fusion of aesthetic and theoretical all bound up in a score that is at heart romantic. As such it demands a place in the collection of anyone interested in orchestral music of the 20th Century. That being so - this new version has a very strong case for being one of the finest all-round versions, but at full price. In my ideal world I’d have Chailly’s athletic vigour, Previn’s abandon and Mena’s sense of orchestral texture and sensuous rapture coupled with Hyperion’s engineering and production.
see also reviews by Dan Morgan (July 2012 Recording of the Month) and John Quinn (August 2012 Recording of the Month)
A very strong case for being one of the finest all-round versions, but at full price.