Classical CD Reviews

MESSIAEN: Turangulila-Symphonie – Steven Osborne, p./ Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot/ Bergen Philharmonic Orch./ Juanjo Mena – Hyperion

If you don’t know this work you are missing something vitally important, and this is a great place to start.

Published on September 21, 2012

MESSIAEN: Turangulila-Symphonie – Steven Osborne, p./ Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot/ Bergen Philharmonic Orch./ Juanjo Mena – Hyperion

MESSIAEN: Turangulila-Symphonie – Steven Osborne, piano/ Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot/ Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Juanjo Mena – Hyperion CDA67816, 77:07 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

The Turangulila-Symphonie (roughly translated as “”love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death”) is a 1946 commission by the Serge Koussevitsky Foundation intended for performance by the Boston Symphony, and eventually given by them in 1949 with a young Leonard Bernstein subbing for an indisposed Koussevitsky, at the helm. Bernstein, despite the brilliance of the performance, never returned to the work, and critical reception, even from such note worthies as Copland, was lukewarm at best. Cyrus Durgin of the Boston Globe called it “the longest and most futile music in memory”, this, despite the fact that Koussevitsky thought it the greatest orchestral work since Rite of Spring. The piece is based on the Tristan and Isolde epic, the centerpiece of three works in the regard inspired by the story, coming between Harawi for piano with soprano and Cinq rechants for unaccompanied choir. It is, according to the composer, simply a piece about love.

The work was always intended to be large scale and multi-movement, far removed from the standard symphony, and only slightly connected to anything resembling sonata form. It’s ten movements provide some of most colorful and exhilarating rhythmic complexities ever assembled into such a large scale work, and its four-motive repetition combined with dense, ecstatic harmonies overwhelm the listener as rabidly joyous and vitally life-affirming. You might think, since it has now been accepted as one of the seminal masterpieces of the 20th century, that the catalog would be full of recordings and the concert halls booked to the full every year with performances, but the work has been considered more important in theory than in practice, and only about 22 recordings have ever been made. Compare this with the 150-odd readings of Le Sacre that are currently available.

I have been a big fan of the early Ozawa-led Toronto Symphony recording for a long time, and it is still available and sounds very good (RCA). But Myung-Whun Chung came along in 1992 with a composer-approved revised version (conducting the Bastille Orchestra) on DGG that has since defined the work for me. Chung is expert at bringing out the exotic textures and multicolored vistas that Messiaen requires. [There is also a multichannel SACD of Turangalila on Decca Classics with the Concertgebouw conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The aggressive surround envelopes the listener in the complex score…Ed.]  Newcomer Juanjo Mena, Spanish Principal Guest Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, is well-attuned to the color aspects of the score, yet puts more concentration on the rhythmic perplexities, which tied into the harmonic richness of the melodic contours gives us an ecstatic and highly electric reading that completely satisfies and makes us wonder why this piece isn’t on the top ten of all time 20th century favorites. Hyperion’s rich, warm sound may not have quite the clarity that the DGG has, but it also avoids the sometimes clinical closeness so prevalent on the yellow label. This is an easy recommendation, and everyone should hear this piece, unique in Messiaen’s output, and a milestone in the modern literature.

—Steven Ritter

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