MONTREAL — For all its renommée, Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie is a once-in-a-while kind of piece, even for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, whose former music director, Kent Nagano — famously an assistant to the composer — programmed it in 2011 and 2017. His predecessor, Charles Dutoit, noted for his affinity for French repertoire, tried it on only once with the OSM, in 1984. Funny that he never recorded it.
On Dec. 5, it was the turn of current music director Rafael Payare, who approached the score with characteristic exuberance and a degree of brashness that frequently made us aware that 103 players (including 10 percussionists) were onstage at the Maison symphonique. Happily, balances were just, and the conductor’s attention to points of stress and release made Messiaen’s tribute to temporal motion (turanga in Sanskrit) and the force of cosmic love (lîla) seem active and dynamic rather than monumental. Still, I left the 80-minute extravaganza as I have in the past, appreciating certain movements more than others and not quite understanding why.
The start was certainly positive. After the trombones made their presence known in a big way in the introduction, the first “Chant d’amour” gave expression to the unpredictable nature of that emotion with alternating passages of ecstasy and repose. Then came the first of three movements self-referentially titled “Turangalîla,” a mostly peaceful interlude in which a lonely clarinet (Todd Cope) interacts with a pizzicato double bass (Ali Kian Yazdanfar) and other participants — much like a chamber ensemble.
Two outgoing movements (including the boisterous “Joie du sang des étoiles”) were followed by the “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” — the “slow movement,” as Robert Markow describes it in his lucid program notes. Here the muted OSM strings created a dreamy backdrop against which the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (elsewhere appropriately assertive) imitated birdsong in what struck me as a dry and methodical manner. Another visitor from France, Cécile Lartigau (positioned, like Thibaudet, near the apron), treated the ondes Martenot more as a thickening agent than a concerto instrument standing out in sci-fi relief. It is a defensible option, even if it subtracts a touch of appealing weirdness from the Turangalîla-Symphonie experience.
An unexpected highlight was “Turangalîla 2,” the most complex movement and most modern in its harmonic language. Payare and his charges clarified the many connections and juxtapositions while maintaining forward momentum. They also gave predictably full value to the huge climaxes of the eighth movement (“Développment de l’amour”) and the even more grandiose fortissimo of the finale. It was a glorious, golden sound that I was happy to be hearing from a seat near the rear of the parterre.
The crowd, which filled three-quarters of the hall, responded with a hearty standing ovation. There were, inevitably, a few mid-performance evacuations. The Turangalîla-Symphonie, a work whose stark sonorities are often built from the top down rather than the bottom up, remains a hard sell for some listeners. There was a big hand from an even smaller audience in May 2023 when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Gimeno performed it in Roy Thomson Hall with Marc-André Hamelin at the piano.
That well-rehearsed rendition and its repeat will form the basis of a recording on the Harmonia Mundi label meant to celebrate the centennial of the orchestra and pay homage to the landmark TSO version led by Seiji Ozawa in 1967 with Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife, as pianist. Available on YouTube, this classic performance remains my favorite.
Why, you ask? More turanga, I suppose, and lots of lîla. Let me think about it. Or not!