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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-1948, rev. 1990)
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes Martenot)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 13-16 January 2014, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
Hybrid SACD, stereo and 5.0 surround. Reviewed in SACD stereo
ONDINE ODE1251-5 [75:08]

Even by Messiaen’s standards the Turangalîla-Symphonie is a weird and wonderful work. Mystico-spiritual it also delights in rhythms and sonorities that are very much of this world. Indeed, I remarked on its ‘shrieks and farts’ in my review of the Bergen Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena performance, which was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2012. Listening to it once more in preparation for this review I was seduced – nay, ravished - all over again. It’s a big, bold and, most important, an impassioned reading that sweeps all before it. There are no weak links – Steven Osborne on piano and Cynthia Millar on the ondes deserve special praise – and Hyperion’s recording is top-notch too.
 
The early Super Audio recording of Turangalîla - from Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - is still available, albeit at inflated prices. However, the much cheaper CD or download will do just fine. Whatever the format Lintu and his team are up against some stiff competition. Apart from the Mena I've also assessed a fine but comparatively civilised account from Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic (review). And then there's André Previn and the LSO's highly charged recording from 1977 (EMI/Warner). In the delirium that accompanied my Mena review I described the latter as ‘pallid’ by comparison. With hindsight that’s a little unfair; Previn could only offer the original score - Messiaen revised it in 1990 - but he still understands the composer's soundscapes better than most.
 
Turangalîla encompasses the earthly-erotic and the lofty-contemplative, and for it to work these elements need to be fused into a rapturous whole. Previn certainly achieves that, although the standard CD is not one of EMI’s best. No, if you want to revisit this classic I’d suggest you seek out the DVD-A, released in 2001. Frankly it’s a revelation, for the re-mastering has lifted the grime that masked the original LP's panoply of sounds colours; the astonishing detail and tonal variety that emerge confirm this as one of the finest Turangalîlas on record. Mena and Chailly are probably the best of the 1990 versions; the latter, somewhat analytical but always propulsive, is blessed with some terrific percussion and a fabulous bass drum.
 
So, Lintu and his players must deliver an exceptional performance – and that goes for the sonics, too - if they are to catch up with, let alone overtake, the frontrunners. The Introduction should explode with energy, a thrilling precursor of what is yet to come. First impressions are that this newcomer, quite closely recorded, has plenty of heft and dark, rasping sonorities; that’s no bad thing, but what I miss already is the elemental surge, the barely controlled voluptuousness, that makes other readings seem so vivid and visceral. Some may prefer the less flamboyant style of Tortelier and Lintu, but I like my Turangalîla played with a sense of risk and abandon.
 
The drenching start to Chant d’amour I sounds splendid here, with formidable drum thwacks and a suitably sinuous ondes; that said, I find Lintu’s precipitous pauses before the latter’s entries very irritating indeed. Clearly this isn’t going to be a seamless performance, more a collection of contrasting episodes, and that rather undermines the epic, cyclical nature of the piece. The woodwind playing in Turangalîla I is very accomplished though, and those downward pizzicati are nicely articulated; however, Hartmann-Claverie’s mewling ondes – it's not the most ingratiating instrument at the best of times - is faintly risible compared with the strongly projected sounds of Loriod, Millar and Harada (Previn, Mena and Chailly respectively). All three avoid the clichéd whoops and whines one associates with sci-fi movies of the 1950s; in so doing they ensure the ondes is part of the orchestra, not a distracting adjunct to it.
 
Angela Hewitt’s lucid but somewhat cool contributions - intellect is her forté, after all - reinforce a sense of proficiency at the expense of passion. Michel Béroff (Previn) and Steven Osborne (Mena) throw themselves into the music in a way that their rivals don’t; this collective thrill is what makes their participation so memorable, and what renders those performances so satisfying, so complete. With Lintu there's a whiff of of caution, perhaps borne of relative unfamiliarity with the score; the less than fluid rhythms of Chant d’amour II are a case in point. Also, when it comes to Messiaen's crowning epiphanies Lintu simply can’t match the soaring intensity of his finest rivals.
 
That’s the nub of it; for all its virtues this new Turangalîla is just too prosaic, and that’s anathema in a work as unbridled and poetic as this. I daresay multi-channel enthusiasts will be only too pleased to hear the symphony in 5.0 surround, but in SACD stereo at least there's not as much extra presence and power as one might expect. Similarly, Lintu's Joie du Sang des Étoiles lacks the febrile quality that Previn, Mena and Chailly bring out so well. Moreover, theirs are genuinely strong and cumulative performances that unfold with an implacable logic, an inexorability, that Lintu and his committed players can’t begin to emulate.
 
Moving on, Hewitt needs more brilliance in Jardin du Sommeil d’amour and Turangalîla II – Béroff is scintillating in both – and there’s little of the evanescence others find in that strange arboreal setting. Once again I’m left with the impression that Lintu’s is a meticulous but ultimately safe performance of this most volatile work. Soundwise it all seems a bit dry and balances aren’t always natural; for instance the animated cello in Turangalîla II is too close, although the bass drum and percussion are splendid.
 
The Finnish orchestra acquit themselves well, even if the brass in Développement d’amour sound a tad weary at times. I really don’t care for Hartmann-Claverie’s playing of the ondes though; she was far more imaginative for Tortelier. Now the instrument sounds wiry and insistent, calling attention to itself in a way that I can’t imagine the composer intended. Not surprisingly Jeanne Loriod is the most beguiling ondes player of them all; she has a sure sense of what’s required at the work’s nodal points. Millar and Harada are also more subtle and varied, and that enhances the symphony’s already exotic colour palette.
 
Lintu’s Turangalîla III and the Finale certainly have their moments – the interplay of instruments and rhythms in the former are superbly realised – but that’s simply not enough in an immersive and closely knit piece such as this. The yelps and squeaks of the ondes in the closing movement are ill-judged; here, as elsewhere, one feels like a bemused onlooker at, and not an active participant in, this great and gaudy celebration. The frankly orgasmic culmination of Previn’s Turangalîla has to be heard – no, experienced - to be believed, especially on that DVD-A. Indeed, his vintage performance has it all; punch, passion and a proselytizing zeal.
 
If you’re addicted to Turangalîla you’ll have several versions on your shelves or on your hard drive; Kent Nagano and the Berliner Philharmoniker on Teldec, Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony on RCA (review) and Chailly (Decca) should be among them; that said, there are aspects of the latter – Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s sometimes splashy pianism and Chailly's occasionally odd-sounding perorations - that I find disconcerting. None is perfect, but each brings something special to the feast. I'm sure Lintu will find favour with some listeners, but in such distinguished company - and for the reasons listed above - I must exclude him from the table.
 
Not the Turangalîla I’d hoped for; Previn, Mena and Chailly are still tops.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei