A Messiaen double bill at the Barbican

Messiaen L’Ascension
Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo
Steven Osborne piano
Cynthia Millar ondes martenot

Wednesday 24th May 2017

The authors of ArtMuseLondon must confess to a certain fascination with the Ondes Martenot, that strange early electronic instrument which stars in Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. We first encountered the instrument at an earlier performance of the same work at the Proms a couple of years ago, but found it hard to hear its swooping, Sci-Fi sounds in the cavernous, acoustically-dodgy Royal Albert Hall. So we were pleased to have another opportunity to hear the work, and the instrument, in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s all-Messiaen concert at the Barbican this week.

Although Turangalila is probably Messiaen’s most popular and accessible work, a whole evening of the composer’s music is clearly too esoteric for most people: the hall was less than half full. A great shame because the first piece, L’Acension, was very beautiful and also very accessible, and provided the perfect foil to the excesses of Turangalila.

I don’t agree with The Times’ reviewer, who declared Turangalila “silly” and “sexless”. I find the work excessive, but not in a bad way. It is exuberant, enthusiatic, ecstatic, celebratory and uplifting. And yes, I do find it quite sexy – or rather sensuous – too…… For me, it’s one of those works where you just have to surrender to the music, a little like Scriabin’s later piano sonatas. And perhaps being a fellow grapheme synaesthete with Messiaen, the colourful blocks of sound, which are most significant than melody in Messiaen’s music, appeal to my sensibilities.

Composed for Yvonne Loriod, a student of Messiaen’s and a remarkable pianist who became his second wife, Turangalila was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but was actually premiered with Leonard Bernstein at the helm. Listening to the exuberant jazzy rhythms and brass fanfares, one can well imagine what Bernstein made of this work. Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO brought vibrancy and colour to this sprawling work. The gleaming brass section, first heard, magnificently, in the opening bars of the first work, were complemented by haunting woodwind and sparkling percussion. Add to this lush, silky strings, the spooky sounds of the Ondes Martenot, and tinking celesta. Steven Osborne, a pianist remarkable for his clear affininty with Messiaen’s music (seek out his Hyperion recording of the Vingt Regards – it will leave you reeling, I guarantee), brought crisp articulation and glorious timbres and textures to the music: with him at the piano, Turangalila becomes almost a piano concerto.

In contrast to the exuberant excesses of Turangalila, l’Ascension, composed in 1932 and one of Messiaen’s most important early orchestral works, was reflective, meditative and absorbing. Performed on the eve of Ascension Day, appropriately, it is a work which reflects the compsoer’s deep Catholic faith and each movement is prefaced with a quote from the Gospels or Psalms. The opening movement, scored only for brass, set the tone for the rest of the piece and immediately revealed the BBCSO’s precision and control, and Oramo’s understanding of this carefully crafted music.

The Ondes Martenot does rather sound like something from The Clangers” remarked NM as we walked back to the station from the Barbican. It certainly is a strange instrument: whether it makes any real contribution to Messiaen’s music is of course open to question.


(picture: Cynthia Millar at the Ondes Martenot, BBCSO)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s