Prom 29: 11th August 2001 – Marvellous Messiaen

Sortie: Le vent de l’Esprit (Messe de la Pentecôte)*
Majesté du Christ Demandant Sa Gloire à Son Père (L’Ascension)*
Les Mages (La Nativité du Seigneur)*
Dieu Parmi Nous (La Nativité du Seigneur)*
Turangalîla Symphony

Wayne Marshall (organ)*
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 11 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The annual visit to the Proms by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain – now in its fifty-third year – is always an occasion for wonderment. Unlike the great pan-European ’youth’ orchestras – who take their players from music colleges (and can squeeze in players as old as late 20s) – the NYO is a teenage band. The oldest players are 19, and – although the biography suggested the youngest was 13 – one of the clarinettists this year is only 12. As all must achieve a Grade VIII distinction or above, their instrumental proficiency is never really in doubt. The marvel is that they can come together thrice a year for intensive courses, public performances and tackle repertoire that many professional orchestras may have difficulty in mounting.

My first live NYO Prom was in 1987 when Pierre Boulez, along with Jessye Norman, gave us Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder; in subsequent years we have had such large works as Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Under Mark Elder, a previous generation of up-and-coming players tackled Turangalîla. With Sir Andrew Davis now in charge, along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who studied with Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod) and Cynthia Millar (who studied with Messiaen’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod, for whom Turangalîla’s ondes part was written), they pulled out a superb performance, the envy of any orchestra in the world.

The performance was dedicated to Jeanne Loriod who died on 2 August. It was also broadcast live on BBC2. The TV broadcast seems to have captured the essence of the live performance very well (I videoed it to compare). While the more extrovert movements perhaps lacked a little abandon – not surprisingly after so much painstaking rehearsal – the subtler, more refined movements displayed individual contributions of the utmost distinction particularly, for example, the wind solos at the opening of the third movement, ’Turangalîla 1’.

The percussionists (all 12 of them) were split into two groups – the non-tuned percussion and tubular bells as the top level of the orchestra; the celeste, xylophone and glockenspiel hidden at the back of the first violins were notable for their sure-footed display in the most exposed of passages, emulating the brilliance of Aimard and Millar. Aimard seems to revel in the phenomenal difficulty of the piano writing, playing from memory and with a keen eye on the orchestra and permanent grin of delight. The ondes martenot came over much clearer than I have ever heard it, especially in its lowest register – although this may well be one of the RAH’s acoustic oddities.

It may not have been the whole story of Messiaen’s extraordinary Turangalîla Symphony. I did wonder how you explain the orgiastic, life-enhancing qualities which the composer enshrined in his conflation of two Sanskrit words to children as young as 12; on the other hand such uninhibited youngsters display none of the tired cynicism that professionals often exude. Indeed, the way the massed cellists attacked their first entry, you could almost feel the vibrating strings as well as hear them! Unlike Boulez who has never conducted the work whole – he did a Prom which included the three movements called ’Turangalîla’ (i.e. the least happy-sounding) – I’ve never felt anything wrong at attempting (I would go further, succeeding) to write such joyful music as this. The fact that the players are so young enhanced the effect, and the Hall responded as only a Proms audience can, with acclamatory abandon.

Earlier in the evening (and not televised) Wayne Marshall put the famous Willis organ through its solo paces one last time before major renovation (£1.4 millions worth) takes place over the next two years. It was the Christian side of Messiaen on display with four excerpts from three of his seven organ-cycles, all directly inspired by his deep Catholic faith. ’Sortie: Le vent de l’Esprit’ is the final section from Messe de la Pentecôte, where Messiaen created a résumé of his previous improvisations. The opening movement of L’Ascension followed with its massive alternating blocks just as imposing on the organ as with the wind and brass mutable with strings in the orchestral version. Finally, the last two sections of La nativité du Seigneur: the tramping of the wise men evoked in ’Les mages’ before the brilliant toccata-style of ’Dieu parmi nous’. Marshall managed the mechanical beast very well but the restoration, which hopefully will do as much as possible to eradicate the ever-present low hissing grumble of pumped air, will be a the crowning improvement of the massive refurbishment programme now coming to a close.

Meanwhile on the grapevine I hear rumours of a NYO Mahler 8 next year with Sir Simon Rattle. Already I can guarantee one of the Proms highlights of 2002! The NYO’s New Year concerts, with Andrew Litton – Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 – are in Newcastle (5 January), Hull (7th) and Preston (9th). Check out the NYO website.

  • The NYO and Andrew Davis repeat Turangalîla at the Snape Maltings (Aldeburgh Proms) on Monday, 13 August
  • The Proms Turangalîla is re-broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on January 7, 2002

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