Prom 38: BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena – John Foulds’s Three Mantras and – with Steven Osborne & Valérie Hartmann-Claverie – Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony

Three Mantras

Steven Osborne (piano) & Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes Martenot)

Women’s voices of the London Symphony Chorus [Foulds]

BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 13 August, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

John FouldsPhotograph: a triumph for the brass! Considerable passages within both these works are driven by this section, and the brass-players of the BBC Philharmonic brought to bear an exemplary variety.

In the first of Three Mantras (the only sequences which John Foulds, 1880-1939, salvaged from his destroyed opera Avatara, and unheard until Barry Wordsworth’s 1988 recording, the brass’s opening gambit was almost screaming, offering a pained impulse to this evocation ‘of Activity’. The brass was sonorous in the slower second Mantra, and, with mutes on, sinister in the third. The brass comes to the fore in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony with the manifold delivery of the foreboding ‘statue’ theme. The searing and dark (if that is not a paradox) monumentality of these instruments’ chords here recalled the snarling, reedy sound that Messiaen must have conjured from some of the great organs of Paris .

The brass was, of course, only one element in the elaborate scoring of both works, and Juanjo Mena’s achievement in holding the huge orchestra together unanimously in some often-riotous music was considerable. Perhaps a touch more violence in the last of the Mantras (‘of Will’) might have been welcome, and more abandon in some of the more extrovert movements of Turangalîla would have made for an even more impressive effect – the ‘Final’ began too cautiously.

Juanjo Mena. Photograph: www.CAMI.comAdmittedly it is not Mena or the BBC Philharmonic’s fault if Foulds’s work is ultimately not as elemental as Stravinsky’s great showpieces. Similarly, the slow middle Mantra (‘of Bliss’) is more of a cosy, pastoral idyll (with an atmosphere of Copland-like simplicity) rather than a mystical meditation. The orchestra played it as such, with pretty delicacy instead of spiritual fervour, and the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus sang mellifluously, rather than with the mysterious detachment of such as the end of Holst’s The Planets (‘Neptune’) and the last of Debussy’s Nocturnes (‘Sirènes’) either or both of which must have served as inspiration for Foulds.

Rapt intensity was also missing from the central slow movement of Turangalîla, ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. Mena could have braved greater stillness here seeing that his sustaining of flow – even between quite disparate episodes of music – was not problematic elsewhere. Instead there was a little too much motion for the lovers’ undisturbed dream and the music sounded slightly foursquare, such that the almost instant snap of Steven Osborne’s cadenza following on at the start of the seventh movement could have told more. But at faster speeds, the BBC Philharmonic indisputably conveyed blazing ecstasy with masterful control, for instance in the reiterations of the rapturous theme throughout ‘Chant d’amour 2’.

As one of the great exponents of Messiaen’s piano music, Osborne skilfully adapted his playing to the varied, colourful textures of the music, his instrument taking its place as one of many different timbres, rather than as a soloist. His performance (favouring Messiaen’s original markings over the revisions made by his wife, Yvonne Loriod) was by turns brittle, monumental, poetic, and songful, completely integrated rather than aggressively asserting. Valérie Hartmann-Claverie also combined the ethereal tones of the ondes Martenot sympathetically rather than dominating them.

The BBC Philharmonic proved masters in performing this music, and its confidence came through in virtually every bar. A discriminating audience listened with close attention and reserved applause until the end of both works. Doubtless many will have left on ‘cloud nine’ as a result, elevated by Messiaen’s remarkable vision of love and transcendence.

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