New York Philharmonic – Jaap van Zweden conducts Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie



Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) & Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot)

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 18 March, 2023
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Olivier Messiaen’s musical language is a world unto itself, spanning cultures, continents, and eras in both structure and form. Fascinated by birdsong, complicated rhythms, and love – both sacred and profane – he stamped his scores with his many-faceted personality. Composed from 1946 to 1948 on commission from Serge Koussevitzky, Leonard Bernstein conducting the premiere in Boston, the Turangalîla-symphonie is a remarkable piece, for both its style and difficulty.

With Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Cynthia Millar, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic delivered an energetic account of the gaudy and gargantuan work, a ten-part, eighty-minute-long hymn to eroticism that borders on the surreal. It was virtuosic performance, every challenge met – the constantly alternating moods in ‘Chant d’amour I’, the complex textures and rhythms of the three ‘Turangalîla’ sections, the frenetic dance music in ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ – with ardor, beauty, and powerful intensity.

Turangalîla is scored for a large orchestra; this outing required ten percussionists to handle a plethora of instruments, if surprisingly, no timpani.

An expressively eloquent pianist, Thibaudet, no stranger to the piece, fulfilled his part with pin-point precision, compelling throughout – full of power and a searching passion completely at one with Messiaen’s ecstatic music. His graceful phrasing and lyrical touch were particularly memorable in ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. Cynthia Millar was a weaker presence on the ondes Martenot. Highly experienced with the work, her elegant phrasing and control of her instrument were superb, but with less than sufficiently amplified speakers, she rarely stood out as a solo voice. Her playing was most notable in the soft and gentle theme in ‘Chant d’amour I’ and the first rendition of the ‘love’ theme in ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’.

With van Zweden handling traffic, the music was slightly mushy at times, but nothing was rushed, nor did it drag or linger. There were a few inflated moments, but for the most part everything was paced with a sense of natural flow, allowing Messiaen’s harmonies and colors to make their effect and provide plenty of dramatic contrast. There were many noteworthy contributions, mostly in the calmer moments. They included – but were not limited to – the agile trumpets in ‘Chant d’amour I’, the sinuous woodwinds in ‘Turangalîla I’, the warm and gentle strings alongside the frolicsome piano in the lushly languorous ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’, the playful percussion in ‘Turangalîla II’, and Anthony McGill’s graceful clarinet solo in the opening of ‘Turangalîla III”. At the conclusion, the maestro pulled all the players together for an impressive and jubilant crescendo.

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