By Lawrence B. Johnson
CHICAGO – It was a rather large cap, but perfectly fitting and quite becoming: this grandly fashioned performance of Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling, virtuosic, and splendorous Turangalîla-symphonie that topped off the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three-week French Reveries & Passions Festival (May 3-24). Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, a familiar friend of the CSO, the whole affair was indeed a fête to remember.
After the disarming amusement of Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges and the brilliant darkness of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, both done in concert version, the purely orchestral epic of Messiaen’s Turangalîla allowed the Chicago Symphony musicians to command center stage. The performance I heard (May 22) was a testament to the orchestra’s collective precision and finesse, but no less to Salonen’s absolute authority in this music.
Salonen takes the Turangalîla-symphonie to London for performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra, of which he is principal conductor, May 27-28. He will also lead performances with the New York Philharmonic on March 10-12, 2016. He will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Pelléas et Mélisande on Feb. 19-21, 2016.
The Turangalîla-symphonie is a cosmological treatise without words. The title comes from two Sanskrit words, turanga (signifying time in its flight and rhythms) and lîla (or play, as the idea broadly embraces concepts of opposition, resistance, creation, destruction, and love). Laid out in 10 movements spanning almost 80 minutes, Messiaen’s work interlaces, elaborates, and transfigures rhythmic motifs and thematic elements to arrive at a consummation (the symphony’s arching finale) expressive of “une grande joie,” as the composer puts it.
Getting there is quite an orchestral ride. The Turangalîla-symphonie, written between 1946 and 1948 when Messiaen was in his late thirties, calls for vast instrumental forces, including an augmented percussion battery plus prominent roles for both piano (Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who also played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G) and ondes Martenot (Valérie Hartmann-Claverie).
Turangalîla is often likened to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (1913), the complexities and mystery and sheer fury of which stamp Messiaen’s work as well. If anything, the rhythmic rigors of Turangalîla exceed even those of Le sacre, and certainly the philosophical embrace of Turangalîla (as well as the range of its musical antecedents from Wagner to ancient Indian music to Balinese gamelan) reaches far beyond that of Stravinsky’s ballet. It must also be said, however, that Messiaen does not aspire to Stravinsky’s elemental concentration. Whereas Le sacre essentially embraces the sacrificial figure of a young girl, Turangalîla encircles life itself and all that we may know, surmise, or believe about its meaning.
The signposts that Messiaen provides at the head of each movement tell us that Turangalîla is substantially about love; whether divine or human at any given moment may be less clear. But amid the high sonic conflict and hurly-burly of three movements designated “Turangalîla” 1, 2, and 3 – each of which Salonen and the CSO brought off with breathtaking force, elan, and clarity – the orchestra offered indulgently beautiful turns through two episodes marked “Song of Love” 1 and 2 as well as a spacious, dream-like account of “Garden of the Sleep of Love,” to which Messiaen appended the notation: “The lovers are outside time. Let us not wake them.” Lustrous string playing melded with long lines in the woodwinds to create a palpable haven of love.
Yet at times, the sonorous upheaval under headings of “love” reminded one of its unsmooth course. In the eighth movement, “Development of Love,” in which all the work’s principal themes coalesce, Salonen presided over a tumultuous “poem” of love’s transfiguration – like the cosmically amplified sound of a caterpillar erupting into the beauteous state of butterfly. But the sonic image that surely will endure longest for most listeners was the last: a gleaming, grandiose, shattering crescendo that the CSO – at Salonen’s feverish urging – built ever greater even as it seemed impossible to fit more sound into the hall.
A word must be added concerning the formidable contributions by Thibaudet, whose virtuosity Salonen abetted by placing the piano at the front of the orchestra, and Hartmann-Claverie, whose elegant mastery of the ondes Martenot – an early electronic instrument whose wavering pitches suggest a theremin – constantly sweetened Messiaen’s love music.
For Thibaudet, it was a return to the spotlight after having delivered a bravura performance in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Conductor and pianist together made the work’s bluesy opening movement swing, albeit with a distinctively Parisian blues, and the finale was a glittering riot, Thibaudet snapping off crisp runs and the CSO, alert and aloft, staying with him turn by crackling turn.
Lawrence B. Johnson, former music critic for The Detroit News, is editor of the performing arts web magazine ChicagoOntheAisle.com