Philharmonia/ Salonen & Aimard, Royal Festival Hall, London
Monday 11 February 2008
Thirty minutes before the start of this concert, the Philharmonia's incoming principal conductor and artistic adviser Esa-Pekka Salonen was to be observed hovering at the back of the crowd in the Royal Festival Hall ballroom, listening to the hypnotic chimings of the Southbank gamelan.
Doubtless, he was meditating on the 80 minutes of erotic-religiose mayhem that he was about to direct. Messiaen's 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie may not require quite the largest orchestra a composer has ever demanded – there is no timpanist among its 10 percussionists; nor harps – it remains, in many ways, the most extravagant, not to say noisiest, stylistic mélange ever.
Echoes of Mussorgsky, Debussy and Stravinsky contend with gamelan textures, French organ harmonies, Indian rhythms, birdsong figuration and 1940s Hollywood in a love theme described by one early reviewer as "Dorothy Lamour in a sarong". Maniacally repetitive, over-scored to a degree that Messiaen never again risked, it has to be put over with the maximum power and conviction, if it is to cohere at all.
And on this occasion, it certainly received that. In the hugely demanding concertante piano part, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of the South Bank's ongoing Messiaen Centenary Festival, ranged majestically from the utmost delicacy to a crazy virtuosity, while Cynthia Millar at the ondes Martenot gauged exactly the degree of electronic "sweetening" the score required. Salonen's mix of absolutely clear beat and almost tremulous passion gave the Philharmonia all it needed to respond at its brilliant best.
Rarely has the sixth movement, "Jardin du sommeil d'amour", sounded more decoratively languorous; rarely has the fifth, "Joie du sang des étoiles", in which a naive little tune like a French Christmas carol seems to rampage orgiastically across the Universe, sounded more exciting.
And, not least, because, in the on-going adjustments to the Royal Festival Hall's acoustics, the brilliant higher resonances seem to have been restored, even if the solo piano sounded a bit shallow in tone and it was occasionally evident that the faint rumble of ventilation from the roof has yet to be suppressed.
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