Sunday, May 18, 2008

Turangalila Redux

From the archives, October 2005.

Messiaenic Fervor: The Cleveland Orchestra’s Electrifying Turangalila
by Mark Satola

Ondes martenot soloist Cynthia Millar last week described Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling Turangalila-Symphonie as a “life-changing experience” when heard live. Whether or not the audiences at last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall had their lives changed may be a question best left for the exit poll, but the experience was certainly a transcendental one.

It would be difficult for it to be otherwise. Messiaen made that a foregone conclusion, with a work that is all about transcendence: in this case, the transcending of death through the power of love (inspired by the story of Tristan and Iseult). It’s also about transcending the traditional bounds of grinding dissonance and sweet consonance, with a resultant “super-tonality” that carries considerable appeal for all but the crankiest of reactionary listeners.

In the Turangalila-Symphonie, Messiaen has given us a score that is so vast and complex and yet so sonically appealing that to achieve its full effect only requires an orchestra with enough chops to play it well and a conductor who can confidently navigate its geography while maintaining a firm hand on its architecture.

It’s a score that’s right up Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst’s artistic alley. As his recent performances here and abroad of Mahler’s huge Symphony No. 3 have shown, Welser-Möst is a conductor well suited to such spacious cathedrals of music. Whether it’s one of the big symphonic events or a full-length opera, he pilots the scores with a sureness that communicates clearly with both audience and players. You always know where you are when Franz is on the podium.

Saturday night’s performance was a marvel, but is that a surprise? The Cleveland Orchestra played the work just a couple of years ago under Welser-Möst, with the same soloists (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, and Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot), and the players have had ample rehearsal time to internalize the notes and play them with real flair.

Clocking in at about an hour and 15 minutes, Turangalila is a long haul, but Messiaen’s sound-world is so lively and packed with fascinating detail that its length seems just right. Welser-Möst led a performance that fairly sizzled with intensity and drive, pointing up the rhythmic engine behind the symphony, and shaping its internal and external structures with an ear always attuned to what had gone before and what was coming next. The orchestra worked hard and gave the impression that they were unanimously committed to Messiaen’s exotic vision.

That said, there was a small problem, not with conductor or performers, but simply a technical one. Saturday night, where you sat determined if you were able to hear the all-important part for ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in the 1930s that produces sine and sawtooth waves modulated by a variety of controls including a piano-like keyboard. Its eerie “vox humana” is an essential component of Messiaen’s score, but up in the dress circle, it was entirely inaudible, save for those rare moments where it played alone; and even then, its voice did not carry with strength.

The solution would have been, of course, to crank up the volume of the ondes martenot, but since the uniquely designed set of speakers is an integral part of the instrument’s sound, rather than just loudspeakers for the instrument’s onboard circuitry, that could hardly have been effected without some sort of “aftermarket” amplification. How that might be addressed is a matter for specialists, but for the moment it would have been nice to hear Millar’s artistry, given that she has played this score more than 90 times already, and can be safely considered the reigning expert on the part.

The inaudibility issue was not helped by the torrent of sound being hurled from the stage. The new acoustic shell has added a second or so of reverberation to the hall’s dry environment and enabled the tiniest of whispered musical details to find their perfect balance, but it has also boosted fortissimi, especially from the brass section. Messiaen’s frequent exuberant climaxes pretty much drowned out not only the ondes martenot but also the piano. Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was breathtakingly brilliant, when you could hear him. Too often, though, his performance was something to watch only.

Photo by Mark Satola

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 5th, 2005

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