Nelsons, BSO bring exuberance and volume to Messiaen’s epic “Turangalîla”

April 12, 2024 at 12:15 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Yuja Wang was the piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

Kids and, sometimes, conductors say the darndest things. In a 1980 talk to the American Symphony Orchestra League, Leonard Bernstein posited that Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (completed in 1945) was the last “really great symphony” and went on to make the assertion that “for the last thirty years we have no real symphonic history.”

In so doing, Bernstein managed to negate not just two of his own contributions to the genre but those of quite a few others (including some that he conducted and even commissioned) such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Dmitri Shostakovich, William Schumann, David Diamond, Luciano Berio, and Witold Lutosławski. Indeed, a closer study suggests that, far from being fallow, the decades after World War II saw the writing of some of the most striking and original symphonies in the canon.

Chief among them must rank Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling, ten-movement Turangalîla-symphonie. Calling for supersized orchestra, solo piano, and ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument, similar in sound to a theremin), the score was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and completed in 1948. Bernstein himself led the world premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall the following year.

Despite its successful reception, the BSO has reprised the work sparingly, once in 1975 and again in 2000 (both times under Seiji Ozawa). On Thursday night Turangalîla made its third return, this time with Andris Nelsons on the podium, as the second program in the orchestra’s “Music for the Senses” festival. Yuja Wang was the pianist and Cécile Lartigau played the ondes.

When Messiaen wrote Turangalîla, he was on the vanguard of new music. The symphony represents both a summation of the French composer’s work to that point and a gateway to several of the defining features of his maturity.

Essentially a meditation on the carnal and divine types of love (the title comes from the combination of a pair of Sanskrit words: turanga means time and lila love, as well as action), the music incorporates an astonishing range of influences. There are references to nature (especially birdsong), rhythms drawn from Hindu musical practice and principles of Greek poetry, and echoes of Indonesian gamelan alongside a more familiar utilization of cyclic themes.

In its embrace of diverse sonic worlds, Turangalîla is downright Mahlerian. There are, expectedly, moments of mystery and wonder. Also, pure ecstasy: the fifth movement, “Joie du sang des étoiles,” and the Finale are almost overwhelmingly exuberant.

Often, the music heads in unexpected directions. Parts of the first “Turangalîla” movement (three are so labeled) give off the smoky vibe of a ‘40s Parisian nightclub. In the swooning refrains of the four “amour” sections (nos. 2, 4, 6, and 8), one could be excused for imagining the Elders from The Rite of Spring drinking the love potion from Tristan und Isolde and then wandering onto the back lot of a Cecil B. DeMille epic.

To paraphrase Goethe, in Turangalîla the ineffable—as well as the bathetic, the sacred, the profane, the extravagant, and a whole lot else—are accomplished, while love permeates all things. Or at least that’s the goal: on Thursday night, the ideal didn’t quite exceed the sum of its parts.

Nelsons isn’t a conductor one typically associates with Messiaen. Though the night marked the first time he’d led anything by that composer with the BSO, there was a certain assurance in the tempos he chose and the manner in which the larger work unfolded. Turangalîla’s little details didn’t distract from the big picture. The orchestra played with energy and color.

What one missed was nuance. Perhaps it’s impossible to entirely disguise Turangalîla’s most cloying turns of phrase and textures (like the Gershwin-esque climaxes of the “Développement de l’amour”). But they can certainly be framed with greater care than they were on Thursday.

With a couple of exceptions, the evening’s interpretation was blunt, texturally blurry, and generally too loud. As a result, Turangalîla often felt one-dimensional and, in its Technicolor excesses, tacky.

The aforementioned “Développement” was a case in point: a lack of dynamic acuity meant that the tissue connecting the movement’s big refrains sounded like an aimless jumble. In this context, the sumptuous recurring tune took on the allure of a digital billboard in Times Square.

Olivier Messiaen and Leonard Bernstein confer at a 1949 Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal for the premiere of the Turangalîla-symphonie.

Granted, on Thursday, not all movements were created equal. The woodwinds captured the impish spirit of their part in “Chant d’amour 2” brilliantly and the layers of voices near the end of “Turangalîla 3” fit together like a puzzle. Best of all was the orchestra’s warm, numinous, beautifully-blended rendition of “Jardin du sommeil d’amour.”

Too frequently, though, the qualities of the euphoric fifth and tenth movements prevailed: boisterous and shrill, with all the refinement and decibels of a rave.

The night’s soloists fared somewhat better. Wang is a musician who seems to be up for just about anything these days, be that a Rachmaninoff marathon or a John Adams concerto. Her account of Turangalîla’s ferocious solos was lucid and bold, especially when she was navigating her instrument’s highest and lowest registers.

Lartigau’s contributions were sometimes swallowed by the orchestra and occasionally sounded scrawny (“Turangalîla 2”). Yet when she projected, in big moments or small, she brought an alluring, otherworldly quality to Turangalîla’s ondes part.

Interestingly, given Nelsons’ and the BSO’s relative unfamiliarity with the Turangalîla-symphonie, Thursday’s concert was taped for future release by Deutsche Grammophon. One expects that subsequent performances will grow in security and subtlety.

Though singular in many ways, Messiaen’s score is expressively straightforward and direct. While Nelsons’ reading has room to grow, it ought to get the chance to do so here. Ultimately, this is music that deserves to be heard and experienced live—and ideally more than just once or twice in a lifetime.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.

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