Giorgio Koukl | 9 JAN 2024
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra decided to record Turangalîla-Symphonie, the only symphony of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), with its new music director Gustavo Gimeno as a special event to mark its 100th anniversary. Besides an enormous symphonic apparatus, this powerful work also requires a piano soloist (Marc-André Hamelin) and an ondes Martenot player (Nathalie Forget).
“Write for me whatever you want, as long as you wish, for as many instruments as you please and with no deadlines attached,” said the famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky to Messiaen in 1945. Certainly, this is a phrase today’s composers would like to hear, but such a thing would probably not be easily repeated.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) started immediately and worked with minor interruptions for nearly two years. His nearly 80-minute-long symphonic work in ten parts required 103 musicians, of which 15 are dedicated to percussion playing only. Adding a vibraphone, a celesta, and a glockenspiel helped the composer to imitate the Indonesian gamelan, an instrumental ensemble presented at the World Exposition in Paris and since then used by contemporary composers like Francis Poulenc, Lou Harrison, and others.
The title Turangalîla can have many explanations. Apparently, a combination of the Sanskrit words Turanga and Lila (or Leela, of which also exists in the Arabic version Leila, which means “night”), the composer meant it as “Song of Love” or “Hymn to Joy.” This name was decided by the French composer relatively late and with great uncertainty. Meanwhile, the story is even more complicated for us as there is a cartoon character of the same name (Turanga Leela) from the animated television series Futurama (and who was indeed named by its creator, Matt Groening, after Messiaen’s Turangalîla). As usual in ancient Oriental languages, there can be dozens of other meanings, but the above meaning was probably what the composer had in his mind.
The ten parts of the symphony follow a quite traditional pattern of slow, quick, slow alternance. There is a vague trace of a story, but the composer offers only a few hints of what he wanted to describe. The technique is one of contraposition of four main themes, which appear in most movements, sometimes in full length, sometimes as slight hints only. That allows Messiaen to obtain a certain stylistic unity despite writing some completely atonal movements and others clearly in a tonal modus.
The first part, Introduction (“Modéré, un peu vif”), starts with vigorous trombone chords in some way, recalling the atmosphere of Stravinski’s Rite of Spring. It uses the “statue” theme. This development is soon interrupted by a lengthy piano cadenza, where Marc-André Hamelin can show all his proverbial technical skills. As explained in the well-written booklet, Mr. Hamelin has played this part many times, but it is his first recording of the symphony.
The second part, called Chant d’amour (“Song of love”), introduces a new sound to the until now quite somber and desperate picture: the ondes Martenot. Invented in 1923 by Maurice Martenot, it is an actual ancestor of many other electronic instruments and sounds we now know; it has a peculiar charm of quasi-extraterrestrial quality, especially when coupled with unison by Messiaen with the first violins.
Turangalîla 1 (“Presque lent, rêveur”) is the third movement. The slow and lyrical thematic material played mostly by the woodwinds is soon disturbed by an absolute orgy of brass, percussion, and piano sounds, with all its mechanical energy. This movement is quasi-completely atonal.
The fourth movement, Chant d’amour 2 (“Bien modéré”), works with tiny rhythmical particles featuring a piccolo flute and tuba with some disturbing elements from the piano. The orchestra’s precision under Mr. Gimeno’s direction is outstanding as it is in the next movement, probably the most tricky of the whole work.
Joie du sang des étoiles (“Joy of the Blood of the Stars”), marked “Vif, passionné avec joie,” it is an absolute explosion of complicated patterns and multilayered thematic material and a nightmare for every orchestra. The drive which the conductor can impress in the six minutes orgy of intricacy is breathtaking. Some minor imprecision must be forgiven in such a challenging score.
Things calm down a little in the next movement, Jardin du sommeil d’amour (“Garden of Love’s Sleep”), marked “Très modéré, très tendre.” Over a carpet of strings, playing a slow and somehow oriental melody, the piano comes with a typical Messiaen feature, the bird song imitation. Sometimes, a solitary percussion or a small woodwind solo adds a thin new layer.
This time, Turangalîla 2 (“Un peu vif, bien modéré”) is in its “terror” incarnation, using all the mighty power of brass and percussion apparatus. It opens with a lengthy piano cadenza, soon interrupted by a percussion-only section. This technique, already used in the past by Alexander Tcherepnin, remains of significant impact and efficacy.
Three final sections follow.
Développement d’amour (“Development of Love”), marked “Bien modéré,” can be considered the only part of the symphony where some genuine symphonic development happens. The composer’s vision is that it should express the terror of the lovers trapped in a passion without end.
Turangalîla 3 (“Bien modéré”) follows. Once again, the four main themes are played one against the other, but the general mood is that of playfulness.
The final movement (“Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie”) is a grandiose crescendo of seven minutes. It is entirely tonal, frenetic, and chaotic. Here, the multi-layer technique of Messiaen may reach its limits as it is nearly impossible to follow seven or more different melodic and thematic materials. That is a point where most conductors have their problems. It has to be said that the Toronto orchestra and its conductor, probably with a significant amount of help from their sound engineers, obtained here a more than good result. ■
- Toronto Symphony Orchestra: tso.ca
- Gustavo Gimeno: gustavogimeno.com
- Marc-André Hamelin: marcandrehamelin.com
- Nathalie Forget: nathalieforgetondes.com