Joanna MacGregor (piano) & Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 20 May, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This, for the most part, was a relentlessly loud, stiff and unyielding performance, dogged by balance problems, the strings (often inaudible) trapped in no-man’s-land between unrestrained brass and an ondes Martenot with its, count them, four speakers, that dominated whenever Cynthia Millar (a veteran of the role) played, because too loud, a succession of unduly piercing and banal sounds that hopped around as if auditioning for a sci-fi B-movie; never a suggestion that Monsieur Martenot’s instrument should be adding an extra and distinctive tint integrated into a large and colourful orchestra, although on this occasion the palette from these generous forces was limited, the music rarely enjoying subtle dynamic changes, an ‘in your face’ account that did few favours to Messiaen’s should-be magical, exhilarating and erotic score; there was little ‘turn-on’ here, just blatancy.
Joanna MacGregor did technical wonders with the fiendish piano part without necessarily stamping too much personality on it – but then this is not a piano concerto – but it’s rare that a concert grand is outgunned by an ondes Martenot. What happened here was that the joy, enchantment and atmosphere of the music was squeezed out in favour of a sock-it-to-them generalisation, not always coordinated, with certain instruments ending up being played for eyes-only rather than ears. From this 78-minute performance it was a long wait until movement 6 (‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ – Garden of the Sleep of the Love) in which a spell was finally cast and magically faded to nothing at the end. The ritual of movement 9 (‘Turangalîla 3’) was also well caught and the last (tenth) movement enjoyed a moderate tempo that, at last, found some of rhythmic élan, playfulness and wit that was ridden roughshod over earlier.
Far more worthwhile was Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles (1965), the composer delighting in the virtuosity afforded him by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, music of resource, unstinting perfection and perfectly placed detail, all part of an evolving process that reaches a thrilling conclusion. In music that requires a pristine response from its performers, and more or less got it here – strings luxuriant and luminous – this meaningful, vivid and scrupulous music had a chance to shine.