Symphony of Psalms
Nicolas Hodges (piano) & Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 5 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Two very different works entitled Symphony, both unconventional within that billing and for their respective forces, if linked by being commissioned by Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In Symphony of Psalms (1930), Stravinsky – due to an administrative error Ernest Ansermet (Geneva) beat Koussevitzky (Boston) to conducting the premiere – sets lines from Psalms 39, 40 and 150 for chorus and orchestra, the latter without violins and violas, two pianos and a harp occupying their space. David Robertson led a sprightly account of the first movement, the players on their rhythmic toes, the chorus chanting solemnly, ancient and modern in tandem, although the brass-led climax emerged as too loud, and shrill, in this acoustic. The ‘patience’ of the second movement was sternly Baroque, the choir immersed into a Bach Passion, unadorned but potent. The finale – sweet in supplication, jazzy riffs and fierce horn-led outbursts roughing the sanctified mood, and with the final refrains oscillating between an earthly lullaby and something interplanetary – emerged as an ideal résumé and extension. An immaculate BBC Symphony Chorus found unanimous objective expression and weight of sound in equal measure.
All change for part two, compact and austere music traded for a score both expansive and kaleidoscopic: hello violins and violas, and ten percussionists (goodbye timpanist though), with positioning now found for a single piano and that curiously high-pitched slithery-sounding ondes Martenot, a 1928 piece of keyboard-and-speakers electronica devised by Maurice Martenot.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) wrote Turangalîla – (from Sanskrit: time and play in their various guises), a ten-movement celebration of life and love – between 1946 and 1948, Leonard Bernstein leading the Boston world premiere the following year. Staying with Stravinsky though, and Bernstein, he heard Lenny conduct The Rite of Spring in New York; apparently his reaction afterwards was a singular “Wow!”. Such comment would suffice for this stunning Turangalîla conducted by David Robertson, the BBC Symphony Orchestra responding with alacrity to its Principal Guest Conductor, the performance glittering, coruscating and inveigling the listener from the off.
Here was suggestion, suspense and hypnotic rhythms (every layer lucid however complex their addition). We got turbulent, swooning (the ondes), perfumed, cacophonous (lines still amazingly clear, brass never too loud), quirky, hallucinatory, Gothic, giant strides and snaking. Every orchestral flick, growl, click and arabesque meant something. Every gloop and sloop (not the right words but they sound appropriate) from the not-dominant ondes had a reason for being (Cynthia Millar is a veteran of the part; she notched up one-hundred partakings two years ago). Nicolas Hodges was a fabulous pianist – neither concerto soloist nor ‘first among equals’ but perfectly poised between the two with playing of artless technique and complete musical identify.
Turangalîla’s a bit Loony Tunes at times (erotic and ritualistic, too), but that’s part of its appeal, although the sixth movement – ‘Garden of the sleep of love’ – was perhaps the most extraordinary part of the show, a calming and spellbinding out-of-body experience, the audience experiencing a collective Nirvana; and the diaphanous textures of ‘Turangalîla 3’ (movement 9) were exquisitely realised.
For all Turangalîla’s power and off-the-chart colour, this was a subtly blended, all-heard account, not a second too long over 75 minutes or so, and not a note too many. Despite the 1990 revision and however the much-older composer saw things then, David Robertson was able to commune with the younger Messiaen’s burgeoning, brazen and uninhibited expression, and his musical innovation – a genuine one-off, free of the incense and birdsong of later works. Put simply, this was a supreme performance of Turangalîla (and I thought Salonen and the Philharmonia would be a tough act to follow). It’s difficult to imagine it being bettered.