Top Ear

The Too-Terrific Turangalîla?

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Jeremy Lee writes

Recorded in 1992 and having gone through a CD and SACD release before appearing at present in Universal’s 20C series, I present you the absolute textbook Turangalîla.  Chailly and his Concertgebouw deliver a ravishingly played performance:  it is well-paced, detailed, finely-hued, and impeccably precise.  He allows the ondes martenot a good deal of prominence without overpowering the orchestra, such as in the glissandi in the 5th movement, which gives for thrilling effect.  And then there’s Jean-Yves Thibaudet, possibly the most proficient pianist to have tackled the part on disc.  He plays his part with astounding technique (no shying away from the mad cadenzas) and power.  Interpretation-wise, there is just enough brutality, spirit, tenderness and eroticism when required, without going over the top.  This performance taken as a whole is completely faultless.

This reading, then, is one that ticks all the required boxes, and I’m not surprised if, had Messiaen lived a bit longer, he would have sanctioned this reading as well as (or over) the one on DG by Myung-Whun Chung (which is, incidentally, more relaxed and less well played than the present reading).  But is ticking all the boxes what I only want in Turangalîla?  Not really.

First, there’s the character, or lack thereof.  You see, the Concertgebouw Orchestra before and just after it became royal sported such a distinctive timbre you would never find anywhere else:  I vividly remember the sound of the orchestra in the 1960s and 1970s under Haitink, in their Mahler and Bruckner cycles, and even more thrillingly, Davis’ Dvorak recorded in 1978 for Philips.  The tender, upholstered strings, piquant woodwinds, buzzy horns and tinny trumpets and trombones created a really characterful, distinctive sound picture, one that suspiciously has been completely lost after Haitink’s departure and, subsequently, Chailly’s arrival in 1988.  This performance was recorded in March 1992, and you can only wonder what happened to the orchestra’s sound in the short space of only 4 years.  It sounds utterly anonymous.  Sure, the technical chops of the orchestra has been raised quite significantly–I doubt that the orchestra could have tackled the piece to such perfection back in the 1960s–but at the expense of the diacritical Concertgebouw sound.  (Frankly if you ask me, I see no conflict with technical ability and characterful sound, unless of course the instrument used to produce such a characterful sound hinders the technique of the player.)  To put it bluntly, Chailly ruined the Concertgebouw sound forever.  I hasten to add that this is not a large problem at all if you are only concerned about the orchestra in this very performance, but to me, a lover of the Concertgebouw sound of old, it is a tremendous regret.

Then there are the musicians themselves.  No doubt about it, all concerned are world-class musicians, and they do their job perfectly.  Unfortunately this piece seems too easy for them, and everyone just eats up their parts, be it Thibaudet or the players of the Concertgebouw, as if it were some Haydn symphony.  What is lacking is the element of risk.  Here and there you wish that some brass would shoot out of the sound picture, or some percussion would go mad, or some passages could have an even greater contrast in tone color and texture.  You wish that Chailly would dare to do something different than everyone else–maybe speed up here, indulge there, highlight that line in particular, make you perched at the edge of your seat, shouting “wow, what a thought!” or “why doesn’t anyone else do that?” but there’s none of that.  Yes, the music itself is phantasmagorical, and Chailly realizes that well, but there’s so much more that can be expressed–hysteria, for one?  This performance, while quite exciting, is just too sane and predictable for my taste, as with so much of what Chailly has done, be it Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Brahms, whatever.  I suppose Wit and his Polish forces on Naxos can’t hold a candle to Chailly and the Concertgebouw in terms of technique, but there’s an active feeling that the orchestra is trying to transcend its limitations to realize Messiaen’s universe of color, emotion and elated ecstasy.

Despite my abovementioned reservations, there’s no denying what Chailly and his forces have achieved here, a veritable technical tour-de-force.  The engineers, too, have done a spectacular job in capturing all of Messiaen’s coloristic effects in such detailed, vivid and balanced sound.  It’s just that, when all is said and done, this effort could have been much more special with a little thought and care.  For this reason, I feel that Wit’s recording remains unsurpassed despite Chailly’s considerable achievement here.

Details

  • Album name:  Messiaen:  Turangalîla-Symphonie
  • Performers:  Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano);  Takashi Harada (ondes martenot);  Riccardo Chailly (conductor);  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
  • Label:  Decca 478 4578 2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  75:57
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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