NSO Review: 'Turangalila's' majestic sweep soars above the flaws

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 11, 2011; 1:19 AM

One must hope that the torrential downpours were to blame for the hundreds of empty seats at the National Symphony Orchestra's opening-night performance of Olivier Messiaen's sprawling, sybaritic masterpiece of 1948, the "Turangalila-Symphonie."

This massive paean to spiritual and physical love, nature and exoticism is complicated and costly to mount (the NSO had performed it only once before), and the opportunity to hear it live should be seized. Although there were certainly problems with Thursday night's rendition under Christoph Eschenbach, the astonishing scope of Messiaen's imagination came through.

Eschenbach deserves praise simply for programming the "Turangalila"; it is a gargantuan work that normally attracts young, hungry conductors, eager to take on its challenges and make a splash. It was premiered in Boston by the then-barely-known Leonard Bernstein; others who tackled it early in their careers include Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle and, most recently, Gustavo Dudamel.

Eschenbach gave the piece his all - perhaps too much so. The spirit of hedonism that runs through the 10 movements makes its full effect only when there is discipline onstage. Eschenbach reveled in the thunderous sonic climaxes, letting the brass and percussion have their head. The result was often opaque, approaching white noise at times, blotting out many vital musical lines in the strings and keyboard instruments.

In some cases, that was a blessing in disguise, as the more cacophonous passages covered up a multitude of sins in the string section, where players struggled visibly with the brutal writing at times. The orgiastic "Joie du Sang des Etoiles" was white-knuckle time. Let's hope the Friday and Saturday performances gain security - though again, Eschenbach doesn't seem all that concerned.

"Turangalila" is almost a piano concerto, the highly virtuoso part written for Yvonne Loriod (with whom the married composer was smitten and who later became his second wife). The piece is essentially a love poem for her. Cedric Tiberghien did a superb job, hurling himself into the crazy passage-work like a child on a skateboard, never falling off. The work also calls for the all-but-extinct ondes Martenot, sort of a theremin with a keyboard. In an immense orchestra that includes everything but the kitchen sink, adding an electronic instrument is not as jarring as it would otherwise be. But in the yearning central movement, "Jardin du Sommeil d'Amour," the instrument's timbre detracted from the shimmering veil of Eros that the strings were working to create.

The size of the orchestra reflects, for better and worse, the scope of Messiaen's vision. "Turangalila" is overrun with influences and musical symbolism, including the Tristan legend, birdcalls (a life-long preoccupation of the composer), Catholicism (another one), some of the more gruesome imagery of Poe, Indonesian gamelan music, love, exoticism, synaesthesia (the association of particular colors with particular tones or chords) and other sounds of nature. When you try to say everything, you often wind up saying nothing - but there is a core to the work that carries the listener through.

Messiaen's harmonic language is a unique synthesis of harmonies derived from the natural overtone series overlaid by chords and melodies that come from Greek and Hindu numerology, as well as modern serial techniques. He uses repetition to acclimate the listener to his harmonic constellations (though he can do this to excess). But the overall effect is harshly dissonant only rarely, at particular climaxes.

One of the most important and influential large-scale 20th-century orchestra works, "Turangalila" is always an event. The title itself is Sanskrit, and on that slender reed, the piece has been enfolded into the Kennedy Center's ongoing "Maximum India" festival.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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