Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

13 May 2010

Love it or loathe it, Messiaen’s Turangalla Symphony is a keynote work of the twentieth century.Love it, and you’d have found this performance a gripping musical experience. Loathe it, and you’d have been clock watching most of the way through.

The Turangalla Symphony (which will be played again on 20 May) represents Messiaen at his most joyous and capriciously quirky. But therein lies the problem. Listening to it, one can’t help feeling that the composer was trying too hard to shock and innovate in a post-war musical world dominated by a rising generation of iconoclasts led by Pierre Boulez.

The symphony’s underlying theme a concoction of meditations on time, space, movement and love is obscure and not always easy to make sense of in the music. And the inclusion of the ondes Martenot (played in this concert by the incredibly experienced Cynthia Millar) sounds twee and faintly ridiculous to modern ears. Indeed, the instrument’s whines and wails seemed particularly shrill in this performance. Much more interesting is the piano part, which was capably handled by Joanna MacGregor. Ranging from repetitive key punching to expansive themes, Messiaen’s writing allowed her to showcase many of her technical and interpretative skills.

There were, of course, other highlights. The opening movement exemplified the LSO’s superb playing under the tight control of a hawk-eyed Valery Gergiev, while the ensuing slow movement (Love Song 1) was a captivating moment of calm. The famous fifth movement (Joy of the Blood of the Stars) was played as a no-holds barred romp. But by then the ondes Martenot’s unfortunate associations with 1950s sci-fi B-movies had already entered the consciousness, and it was a long time to clock watch until the end.

Twentieth century music was much better represented by Witold Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto. Edgy and lyrical by turns, it was written as late as 1987. Yet it incorporates many of the traditions of the nineteenth century piano repertoire. There are audible echoes of Liszt, Rachmaninov and Ravel, and strong reminders of Lutoslawski’s compatriot Szymanowski in its uneasy exoticism. Sergei Babayan proved an outstanding soloist, working completely in tandem with Gergiev. The orchestra, too, had clearly rehearsed the work well. The interplay between the piano and woodwind section in the first movement was particularly noteworthy, while the whole of the LSO really came into their own in combative finale.

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