The concert of the Berlin Philharmonic on Sunday, August 31st, concluded the Salzburg Festival 2008 – and it concluded it in style. Simon Rattle presented his band with Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde followed by Olivier Messiaen massive Tristan-inspired spectacle of color and sound, theTurangalîla Symphony for Solo Piano, ondes Martinot, and large orchestra.
Love was the theme, in either case, and there was plenty love in the Berliner’s playing: Absolute evenness in the continuous build-up of the Tristan Prelude was achieved with tension and volume being increased at such a minimal gradient and with such consistency that it wasn’t noticeable — only felt. This was perfection in conceptualization and execution, scarcely doable with but a handful of orchestras.
The swelling and receding, the thrillingly gentle pianissimos, the falling and lifting of the Liebestodwas no less nuanced. It encapsulated the essence of ‘smooth’ without a hint of glibness. And all in the Berlin Philharmonic’s terrific, involving sound in the Large Festival Hall.
It is hard to say if this was a typical ‘Berlin’ sound – not the least because bands are known to play better on the road. But it was stunning to hear – and stunning to hear how nothing on Sir Simon’s recent recordings with this orchestra – nothing at all – suggests what they can really sound like.
Hearing the Berlin Philharmonic in this program of traditional as well as (relatively) new repertoire, it became clear why the orchestra has voted to reaffirm and extend Rattle’s contract last April. At the same time, it was a vital reminder that recorded output can give a hint of an orchestra’s and its conductor’s quality, but that it need not necessarily give an accurate impression.
Messiaen’s 1946-48 Turangalîla, the central part of a triptych on the myth of Tristan & Isolde (“Chant d’amour et de mort” ‘45 and “Cinq rechants” ’48 being the other two), was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony and premiered in 1949 under the young Leonard Bernstein. Messiaen himself described this long and lovably strange work as “a love song, a hymn to joy”, a ‘fatal, irresistible, transcending love that suppresses everything outside, an overwhelming, superhuman joy’. Words of either religious motivation or Liebestod inspired, and well possibly both. In any case, a worthy work to serve as Salzburg’s nod to the Messiaen centenary.
For all its relation to Wagner’s Tristan, the concept and music of Turangalîla is vastly different. For one, the “amour impossible” both composers deal with in these works seemed insurmountable to Messiaen at the time of writing – it became possible only 13 years later, when Messiaen married Yvonne Loriod (soloist at the premiere of this work) after the death of his first wife. Wagner, in contrast, took such amorous impossibilities merely as theoretical concerns and discarded them when no longer convenient, necessary, or tenable. In real life, Wagner more or less seized what he wanted, and even in his operas emotional suffering is more of a sport than cause for consternation. There’s scarcely a convention, rule, or law that he won’t let his heroes break, if it’s for love. For the catholic Messiaen, “No” actually meant “No”; his yearning is in that sense more truthful than assertive.
This might be an idea to keep in mind while listening the Turangalîla-Symphony, but it will hardly explain the complex work of ten movements with its four dominant ‘statue’-, ‘flower’-, ‘love’-, and ‘chord’-themes. At points, this symphony makes Messiaen sound like a Bruckner-type of liquid luminosity. The “Introduction” offers musical blocks with edges and corners that wouldn’t be out of place in a Varèse or Stravinsky work – except for the twittering and chirping everywhere. Sometimes excited, sometimes soft elements intrude, the latter bringing short illusions of Saint-Saëns. Just when you think havoc is the name of this game, the love theme tenderly forces itself on the ears with all its seductive might. Even so, this “Chant d’amour” is still one of the more robust love songs written.
Rattle and his Berliners moved through the music with great poise: the echoing ondes Martenot of soloist Tristan Murail, the dreamy tinkling, the respite, and standstill, the swinging rhythms, the sea of Messiaenic sound (“Chant d’amour 2”), the metallic birds that pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard freed from his Steinway, the statue theme in its orgiastic guise in “Joie du Sang Etoiles” where it sounds like a quote from a Broadway musical about the Wild West… it all amounted to what Herbert Glass so aptly calls the “magnificent monster”.
Instead of quietly shifting in their seats and uttering nervous coughs, the audience that remained (some had inexplicably left after the short Wagner appetizer) listened with alert ears and some with open mouths as the music switched from featuring feathered friends to a movement with altogether more hoofed animals running about (“Turangalîla 2”), to movie-music sweep (“Développement d’amour”), to the fanfares of “Joie de Sang des Etoiles 2” again. And if the stars didn’t ‘bleed joyful blood’, the music is ambitiously written to depict a universe in climax. How appropriate that the final exclamation is one of love. And how fitting an end that to the Salzburg Festival, which had chosen as its motto for this year: “For strong as Love is Death.”
Recommended recordings of the Turangalila Symphony (see links above):
Between two fine recordings, this Salzburg line-up can be cobbled together: Simon Rattle conducts the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on a 1987 EMI recording – and Tristan Murail plays the ondes Martenont. Peter Donohoe plays the piano in that performance which created a small sensation when it was originally issued. The Berlin Philharmonic and Pierre-Laurent Aimard are conducted by Kent Nagano on a 2001, Grammy Award winning Teldec recording. The latter, one of my favorites, is also available in Warner’s splendid 2006 Messiaen Edition box of just about all of Messiaen’s works on 17+1 discs. (One of my “Best of 2006” picks.)
Worthy of everyone’s consideration is also Myung-Whun Chung’s performance on DG with the Bastille Opera Orchestra and the performers who played the work together more than any other artists: Yvonne Loriod and her sister Jeanne Loriod. My favorite, however, is a recording with altogether less famous participants: Naxos’ recording with Antoni Wit, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Thomas Bloch and François Weigel. It is the very recording that once and for all convinced me how good Naxos recordings really can be, and it remains my first choice at any price.