Salonen, soloists and Philharmonic raise the roof with Messiaen’s “Turangalîla”

Fri Mar 11, 2016 at 1:48 pm
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in Messiaen's "Turangalîla-symphonie" with Yuja Wang and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-symphonie” with Yuja Wang and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Thursday night at David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic performed Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. With conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Yuja Wang and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie as piano and ondes Martenot soloists, the performance left one stunned and giddy, humming the tunes on the way out. The Philharmonic simply played the hell out of Messiaen.

Turangalîla is an extraordinary piece, both for its style and its difficulty. Soloists for works like this must be virtuosos and specialists who are sympathetic with the music’s qualities and up to the technical challenges, as well as a leading orchestra like the Philharmonic who can handle its innumerable difficulties.

The concert went well beyond all that, it was a virtuoso performance by the entire orchestra. They met and surpassed every challenge—the complex mechanical clock works, the complex mesh of pulses in the ethereal “Turangalîla” music, the veering intervallic lines in the dance movements—with tremendous, joyful energy.

The impressive, confident technique in moments like the impeccable high trumpet entrances, was equalled by the sensitive awareness and refinement for when a note might be imperceptibly passed from the ondes to the clarinet, and back again. The gigantic, organ-like sound (it might easily have been mistaken for Messiaen’s own instrument at the Église de la Sainte-Trinity in Paris) in the enormous crescendos at the end of the “Joie du sang des étoiles,” and the finale, was matched on the opposite end by the extreme delicacy of the “flower theme” clarinet phrases, set apart by widening dissonances–Messiaen’s version of the “Petrushka” chord.

Messiaen’s idiom is a universe unto itself. What makes it part of the classical tradition is the instrumental and tonal vocabulary, but the syntax and grammar—the structure and form—make it a music that spans continents, cultures, and epochs. Like Mahler, Messiaen impressed his personality onto the notes: a mystical, synesthetic Catholic, enraptured by bird song, Hindu music, medieval rhythms, and sacred and profane love.

And so it takes a particular commitment and attitude, both far out of the ordinary experience of playing orchestral music, to channel the music’s ecstatic, ravishing energy.

The soloists were out front, of course, joined there by the two celestes and the vibraphone, placed at the lip of the stage alongside and in front of the first violins.

Wang was compelling all night. Messiaen seems like the perfect match for her pianism; her dexterity, fire, and her searching passion for emotional transcendence are immediately sympathetic with Messiaen’s writing and aesthetic.

The piano part has a substantial amount of purposeful bashing, and Wang’s power was explosive but always clear. And her phrasing and lyrical touch were haunting in the “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” movement, sounding like a distant call from reality in the midst of a dream. Wang’s life may be entirely different than that of the composer, but her playing expressed the same relish for the vibrancy of life.

Hartmann-Claverie is deeply experienced with the piece, appearing on record and also with the Philharmonic for the orchestra’s previous concerts of the piece, in 2000. Her phrasing was elegant and her control of the instrument was superb. Her vibrato and choice of speakers maintained a balance between standing out as a solo voice and blending with the orchestral textures, especially the strings. And her choice of timbres was unexpected and satisfying—to the commonplace sine wave she added harmonically rich tones.

Salonen handled the dense amounts of traffic with poise and was the standard bearer for the zest and stamina of the performance. His tempos were always a little quicker or slower than usual, which added depth and tremendous excitement throughout. At the close, he gathered the orchestra for one last crescendo on the last chord, and just when they seemed to have topped out, he pulled them to a point that was gloriously massive and kaleidoscopic.

The New York Philharmonic, with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yuja Wang, and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, play Turangalîla-symphonie Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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