Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony was once practically standard repertoire in London. But this ten-movement work demands solo piano and ondes Martenot as well as a large orchestra including lots of percussion, and there simply isn't the money around today to mount it regularly. With its violent contrasts of style and mood and its brazenly anti-symphonic refusal of thematic and tonal development, it should never be taken for granted.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra had the good idea to preface their performance of the Messiaen, under Mark Elder, with a half-day's activities devoted to one of the inspirations behind it; the Indonesian gamelan. Performances, workshops and talks included a short concert in the main auditorium itself at 6pm by Wacana Budaya, a Frankfurt-based group of Indonesian musicians who perform both Balinese and Javanese music around Europe. However, to the moderately initiated Western listener, Wacana Budaya's performances lacked variety. Even real aficionados might agree that a group based in the West and playing in concert should make more attempt to engage, and acknowledge, their audience.
The Turangalila Symphony itself began a little rough around the rhythmic edges, but with an immediate sense of the music's red-blooded energy. Amplification of the piano somewhat blunted its timbre and made its resonances sound a little artificial. But Peter Donohoe was a splendid soloist: majestic, wild and poetic by turns. Cynthia Millar - curator of that curious electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot - was a willowy, angelic contrast to Donohoe's bear-like presence. The ondes' sweet timbres and a whooping glissandi no doubt helped to make Pierre Boulez vomit, as he is supposed to have done on hearing Turangalila. It can easily dominate the symphony's sicklier textures, but that was expertly avoided here.
Not surprisingly, Elder not only proved capable of marshalling such large orchestral forces but also provided the dramatic flair necessary to project the broad canvas of the work's cosmic "time game" (the literal meaning of its Sanskrit title). Almost bifurcated by Messiaen's panoply of keyboards and tuned percussion (his "gamelan"), the orchestral strings lacked the ideal sonic sheen; the contributions of the front-desk string players in movements four and nine could have been more sensuous. But while the slow sixth movement, "Garden of the Sleep of Love", was handled with care rather than passion - typifying an apparent concern in the performance as a whole to avoid indulgence - the big climaxes of the fifth, eighth and final movements appropriately made the earth move.Reuse content