Messiaen’s magic monument

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 03.03.2014

Every few years, music lovers should try to attend a live performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie. Not just to clean one’s pipes but to be reminded what a composer’s volcanic imagination can do with an orchestra. In one recent case, the rattling rhythms, celestial melodies, other-worldly electronic warbles and of course a lot of birdsong washed over the concert hall, leaving most listeners limp.

Yes, Turangalila hits you in the solar plexus, the way the best music does. 

I heard it in Bordeaux, my first live performance although I have been carrying an LP recording of it around the world with me for 40 years. I love this symphony in any setting, but nothing ever beats a live performance. I only regret that I am too young to have seen the young Leonard Bernstein conduct the world premiere in 1949 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He must have been flying off the podium.

The performance I did witness was at Bordeaux’s new Auditorium, with the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine (104 of them) under the direction of Paul Daniel. Handling the piano part with aplomb was Bertrand Chamayou, and on the ondes Martenot was Cynthia Millar. 

Daniel produced a reading of crystal clarity and finely wrought precision. Maybe he didn’t quite fly off the podium but he frequently broke into involuntary hops and dances to keep his players together in thrall to this monumental score.

It’s a long work, totaling 2,683 measures and lasting about an hour and 15 minutes. Its ten movements leave not a hint of ennui, however, so rich in musical variation is the composition. The program notes rightly refer to the “purely magical effect on the audience”. Messiaen brings to bear his entire musical language.

Briefly, the symphony is in two parts of five movements each. A dissonant opening with heavy brass repeats the dominant theme that serves as the eunifying figure. Sudden silences interrupt powerful passages, and odd combinations keep the listener tuned in – such as the charming piccolo-bassoon duo in the fourth movement. Next comes an interesting interplay of the ondes Martenot and piano. Concluding the first half is a reprise of the opening theme interspersed with rhythms as complex as anything Stravinsky attempted. Conductor Daniel never faltered although he stepped off the podium to catch his breath for a minute or two before plunging back into the piece. 

The sixth movement is devoted to a long development of the love song, a sweet and memorable tune beautifully orchestrated by this master of color. The sweet song is overlaid with high-register piano part imitating Messiaen’s beloved birdsong. The seventh through ninth movements develop previously heard melodies, building to a climactic tenth movement, the famous finale.

But however I might describe this piece of music pales in comparison to a marvelous Youtube clip of the first movement annotated by Messiaen himself. Here the themes and purposes are laid out clearly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a35DH9tKjZI

Also on the Bordeaux program was an impressive performance of the Concerto for Left Hand by Maurice Ravel by the talented Frenchman Chamayou. It was a virtuoso performance, his right hand anchored to his thigh as he navigated the full keyboard, scooting back and forth on the bench. His pedaling helped maintain continuity during the great keyboard leaps. 

The three moods and tempi of this piece have been variously interpreted as a single movement, two movements or three. In any event, Chamayou breezed through the demanding piece without pause, and to the delight of the audience.

The concerto has a painful history. Commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a budding concert pianist who lost his right arm in World War I, the concerto did not go down well. Wittgenstein, a conservative Viennese in musical tastes, bristled at Ravel’s jazzy contemporary style. As fellow Bordeaux pianist Ivan Ilic has written, Wittgenstein’s instructions to several composers were “to write however they wished as long as the resulting piano concerto put him in the spotlight. But harmonically and formally, few of the works were in his beloved 19th century mold. This perplexed and annoyed him, and he wasn’t very diplomatic about it.” 

Wittgenstein’s clash with Ravel was one of the more severe in his commissioning career. He had paid a fee of the equivalent of $68,000 for the concerto and took it to the concert stage. But, as Ilic writes, “He made substantial changes to the work before the premiere, to Ravel’s horror, and the two never reconciled their differences.“

Chamayou gave us Ravel’s sparkling version, mercifully lacking Wittgenstein’s efforts to tone it down.

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