Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Salonen @ Royal Festival Hall, London

7 February 2008

A continuation of the “From the Canyons to the Stars” festival, which opened last week, this concert saw The Philharmonia perform just one work: Messiaen’s massive Turangalla-symphonie.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

A leading exponent of the piece, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the orchestra in a spectacular, multi-coloured performance that delighted a near-packed audience in the Royal Festival Hall.

In two great chunks at the beginning and end of the year, the South Bank is marking Messiaen’s centenary with an impressive programme of works, culminating in a Pierre Boulez-led concert on 10 December, the day of the composer’s birth. Directing the whole enterprise is the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, here as piano soloist in one of many appearances during the festival.

Following the work that gives this celebration its title (Des Canyons aux Etoiles), with which Ensemble Intercontemporain opened proceedings, we were whirled back from the towering landscape of Utah’s Bruce Canyon to the equally monumental and awe-inducing inner cosmos at the centre of the Tristan-inspired phase of the late forties.

The Turangalla-symphonie is like a many-hued explosion of paint hitting a fan at a hundred miles an hour, here flying out in great dollops, there spraying out a fine mist. It’s a smorgasbord of sound, bursting with energy and colour, from the slip and slide of the ondes Martenot, its most distinctive feature, to the dry rattle and clip-clop of the large percussion section (which seems at times to presage the strange sounds that usher out Shostakovich’s symphonies) and the touches of Broadway exuberance that could almost have been penned by the work’s first conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

Full of varied tone and mood, it frequently melts into tender reflections of idealised love and it is human love that’s at Turangalla‘s heart, more than the spiritual expression that marks so much of the composer’s work. But, for all its brilliance, this work doesn’t invite an enormous amount of emotional engagement. The carnal love is of the noisy, frantic, grunting kind rather then the truly orgasmic (give me Wagner’s Tristan for that) and the yearning, idealised strain (most evident in Movement VI: Joie du sang des toiles) veers towards the sentimental.

The piano, whether in demented solo flights or embedded in driving polyrhythms, is never silent for long and Aimard showed complete assurance in this demanding part, as you’d expect from someone so close to and versed in this music. Probably only an expert would know the difference between a good and bad performance on the ondes Martenot but Cynthia Millar, with a wealth of experience behind her, seemed to carry off her wailing contributions with lan.

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