Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Turangalîla Symphony
PERFORMER: Howard Shelley (piano), Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot) BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9678
Love it or loathe it, Turangalîla keeps Messiaen in everybody’s ears. This 75-minute hymn to sexuality is an unlikely fusion of Stravinsky and Gershwin, the French organists and symphonists, a museum-full of Asia and half the world’s birds, and it established Messiaen as one of the century’s most distinctive voices. Nothing sums him up better.

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Its extravagant sounds, luscious, violent and delicate, need a feeling for the big picture as well as the detail. Tortelier is therefore in his element, and Chandos’s ample soundscape suits a larger-than-life score. Artful balancing holds its layers and strands in place. The howl of the ondes martenot gives an unreal brilliance without overwhelming, and only the piano in several movements seems too forward – this is not a concerto. It’s fine when part of Messiaen’s cod-gamelan effect.

Violins cope, but best are the huge bass drum and the brass, which deliver a very French warm brightness as well as weight. Tortelier uses them to hold a line through apparent chaos – as in the orgiastic central movement – and in the finale they have an infectious rhythmic spring. This is taken more lightly than usual, for the heart of the performance is in the ‘amour’ movements with a wonderful sense of space at the close of No. 4 and the symphony’s peak of ecstasy in No. 8.

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Chung has a French orchestra and the composer’s family as soloists, but expression outweighs precision. Rattle gets virtuosity and an ending to knock you flat. The newcomer has the edge. Robert Maycock