Birds of a Feather
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Takashi Harada (ondes Martenot)
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)
There's something about the Turangalila Symphony that engenders a sense of family, even a feeling of belonging to a special segment of humanity. The greatest performances of this exciting work are always close to the genealogy of the composer himself. Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod, was the pianist at the world premiere in 1949 with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony. Eight days later the entire ensemble drove down to Carnegie Hall to present New York's first hearing. Although the inventor of the unusual wave generating keyboard that bears his name played at the world premiere, soon Messiaen's sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod took over as the mistress of the ondes Martenot. Bernstein's protégé Seiji Ozawa, long before his association with Boston, recorded the huge orchestral essay with the Toronto Symphony, a disc which won numerous awards and still remains the benchmark performance to this day. A new generation is now making this seminal work of midcentury its own, but they come to the temple of aural orgiastic worship with impeccable pedigrees. Pierre-Laurent Aimard began his piano studies with Yvonne Loriod at age 12, eventually living in the Messiaen household as their ersatz son. Takashi Harada knelt at the feet of Jeanne Loriod and learned his arcane craft from this high priestess of the keyboard. During the 1970's there was a very dedicated band of adherents of this work, sometimes including the composer himself, who traveled the world to attend its performances like the Deadheads of the 1980's. Now it seems the performers themselves are the cult, spreading the Messiaenic gospel to Cologne and Paris as well as New York and Boston in this particular run.
Like all good evangelists, Ozawa has an exciting show to grab our attention. The work is a piece gigantesque, ten movements of wild rhythms, ecstatic melodies, lustful yearnings and boundless joy. The stage is awash in exotic percussion instruments from xylorimba to celesta and the complex crystals of sound careen around the various sections like escaped pinballs from a necromancer's sonic arcade. This is music created sui generis although it can trace its origins to Hindu scripture and the gamelan of Bali. Where did Messiaen's unique voice originate? Surely there are hints of past composers like Ravel and even Gershwin, but overall this is the music of a lone supplicant at the altar of a pantheistic orgy. Messiaen made his living as a church organist, but his brand of Catholicism is heavily weighted on the side of the carnal love of Christ, the stigmata and the bleeding heart. If church were this interesting, attendance would be through the roof.
The performance tonight was thrilling. Monsieur Aimard dazzled with his abilities to punch out what seemed to be hundreds of notes in just a few seconds while still keeping a fresh sense of dynamics and drama throughout. This idiom appears to be his native tongue and he speaks it eloquently. The sixth movement, subtitled "garden of the sleep of love", was simply sublime, the beauty of the ondes melody ornamented so lovingly by the delicate birdsong of the piano. The two major climaxes of this lovemaking, the fifth movement ("joy of the blood of stars") and the finale, were both extremely sensual and aroused the audience to new heights of appreciation. The standing ovation at the conclusion lasted through four long curtain calls, a rarity for the always on the move New York crowd. One had the sense that this was the most authentic performance possible of this great music and everyone left with their hearts pounding and their hands throbbing from clapping. Great joy can be hard to share, but when it is communicated so lovingly it is an experience to treasure for many seasons to come. I was fortunate enough to hear the 80th birthday performance of this work with the composer in the audience at Avery Fisher Hall but even though I have such fond memories of that night I believe that this performance surpassed it by a considerable leap. Messiaen's particular brand of ecstasy is in expert hands and, after this night, in our ears as well.
Frederick L. Kirshnit