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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Turangalîla-Symphonie for piano, ondes martenot and orchestra (1846-48)
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, 13-16 January 2014. DDD/DSD
ONDINE ODE1251-5 SACD [75:08]

Selected comparisons:
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Takashi Harada, Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly: Decca 4784578
Steven Osborne, Cynthia Millar, Bergen PO/Juanjo Mena: Hyperion CDA67816: reviews and DL Roundup

This new Ondine disc comes up against some tough competition from the two recordings that I have listed. The Hyperion, released in 2012 to near-unanimous acclaim, would be my first choice. It sounds very well in 16-bit flac though it’s not available in SACD format like the Ondine and there’s no 24-bit download as there is with more recent Hyperion releases. The Decca, my preferred recording before the appearance of the Hyperion, has recently been reissued at mid price.

All three recordings come with first-rate pianists. I was surprised to see Angela Hewitt’s name on the cover of the Ondine – having enjoyed her Bach and Mozart, her latest recording of the latter with Hannu Lintu, as on the Ondine Messiaen, I had forgotten that she is also a distinguished exponent of the French repertoire. She gives a fine, if slightly cool performance here. There’s something a little special, however, about the Decca recording in that Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who studied the music with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod, the soloist in the first performance and Messiaen’s wife, made a number of adjustments to the piano part, though I hardly noticed these.

Any performance of this massive symphony has to balance two elements, defined by the two elusive Sanskrit words that Messiaen combined in the title: the flow and movement of time (turanga) and the game of life, love and death (lîla) with its sub-text in the story of Tristan and Yseult. Chailly and Mena balance these ideally, especially in the sections with the word ‘love’ in their titles, II, IV, VI and VIII, though they achieve this despite fairly considerable differences of tempo, with Mena much closer to Lintu except in the crucial Section VI: Jardin du Sommeil d’amour. Messiaen marks this très modéré, très tendre and I think Lintu’s 9:52 a little shy of the mark in both respects. Mena at 12:41 and Chailly at 11:40 capture the impression of the lovers as hors du temps, ‘outside of time’, as Messiaen put it.

Other conductors tend to agree with Chailly and Mena here in giving the music more time to breathe: Messiaen’s student Pierre Boulez (DG) takes 12:39, André Previn (an inexpensive EMI/Warner twofer, with Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps) 12:33, Simon Rattle (another inexpensive EMI/Warner twofer, with Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps) and even Kent Nagano (Warner) takes 10:33. You can compare for yourself all of these except the Hyperion with the new Ondine from Qobuz.

Heard on its own the new Ondine recording conveys the attractions of this fascinating music. If you heard it in a concert or on a broadcast you would probably be delighted. Try playing the knock-out final section to anyone not yet a fan of Messiaen and they will find it hard to resist. Once you begin to compare it with Chailly and Mena, however, some of the twin aspects of power and mystery are slightly lacking.

I hadn’t noticed that Dan Morgan had already reviewed the new Lintu recording – review – until I was about to do my final proof-read. We usually see eye to eye, though not always, and I see that we have done so again, with Dan as impressed in some respects but overall as disappointed as I am by what he ultimately found a prosaic experience and with a lack of power in the recording as heard from the 2.0 SACD layer.

The Ondine sound is clear, sharp and analytical, heard from the SACD layer in stereo. Even without the help of the photograph of the whole orchestra and soloists in the booklet, it’s easy to place every segment of the sound picture. The Decca CD heard immediately afterwards sounds more diffuse, with less sense of pinpointing individual instruments or groups but a greater feeling of solidity. I’ve noticed that effect before when comparing an SACD and CD recording of the same work and the advantage is not automatically in favour of the SACD, especially as in this case there’s a greater sense of the ambience of the Concertgebouw Hall from Decca.

I tried the Ondine on two systems, with the Cambridge Audio BD650 in the study predictably yielding a fuller sound than the Panasonic in the lounge and making me warm rather more to the performance, but it’s still short of the presence apparent from the Decca. I understand that the original SACD of the Decca – I have the original CD release – can still be found if you are prepared to pay something like the £45.25 that I’ve seen it advertised for on Amazon. The Hyperion recording falls somewhere between the two, combining clarity and solidity.

The Ondine notes are helpful but lack the movement-by-movement analysis to be found in the Decca and Hyperion booklets, invaluable for anyone coming to the music for the first time or even after many hearings. If you wondered what the ondes martenot looked like but were afraid to ask, there’s a photo of it on its own in the Ondine booklet and another of the whole orchestra with the two solo instruments.

If this were the only recording of Turangalîla on the market I would be happy to recommend it. As it is, if you prefer the clarity of sound from the SACD layers, this could be the version for you. The competition from Mena on Hyperion, Chailly on Decca and Previn and Rattle on EMI/Warner, however, means that it’s a good also-ran. Three of those alternatives come at less than full price, as does the Hyperion if you download it from, with mp3 and lossless sound for just £7.99, pdf booklet included.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Dan Morgan