Turangalîla-Symphonie

Performed by Sydney Symphony Orchestra. November 21st 2019, Sydney Opera House

Conductor: David Robertson

Soloists: Tengku Irfan on piano, Jacob Abela on ondes martenot

By Sean Quinn

Fever Pitch Magazine guest contributor Sean Quinn recently attended the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. The SSO describes the unique work on their website: “Calling for a massive orchestra of almost 100 musicians, solo piano and one of the earliest of electronic instruments, the ondes martenot, Messiaen creates a spellbinding, transcendent world filled with drama and mysticism.

Its first performances in the 1940s were considered nothing short of a revelation from a composer whose musical bombshells seemed to belie his gentle spirituality and humanism. Turangalîla, a word from the ancient Sanskrit reflects the work’s fascinating dualities: east and west; tonality and lyricism, joy, time, life and death.”

Keep reading below to hear Sean’s thoughts!

My first visit to the Sydney Opera House was one that had me shivering with excitement. After witnessing the sheer glory of Olivier Messiaen’s immense Turangalîla-Symphonie at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall with the Australian World Orchestra (2017) under the baton of Simone Young, who brought powerful contrast to the colourful menagerie of music that lay before her, I was ecstatic to attend my second viewing of the colossal work. This time, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, led by David Robertson, whose distinct style provided a nice point of difference for me as an audience member. Having not even reached the age of 20 and now seen Turangalîla twice in two of Australia’s finest venues, I had much to contemplate.

I would love to first acknowledge the two soloists; Tengku Irfan on piano and Jacob Abela on the ‘ondes martenot’ – the latter of which I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing perform in this role twice, both times with astonishing conviction and poise around the complexity of the ‘ondes’.

Irfan showed great virtuosity in tackling the fiendish solo piano part, delivering the passion and intensity Messiaen desired in the music as well as the delicate contrasts. At times there was a lack of contrast in certain cadenzas. This is not to say that they were performed with any less technical brilliance, but occasionally seemed a little too hurried, not allowing space for contemplation of the vast palette of colours at hand.

Abela’s performance was incredibly stylish. Adorned in a fitting costume that suited the unique quirk of his instrument and the symphony’s general state, the ‘ondes’ was certainly in the hands of a well formed ‘ondist’. Capturing the mystic, yet somewhat voice-like character of the instrument is no mean feat, and Jacob performed with flying colours, engaging the audience and ensemble with the beauty of the ‘ondes’ varied sound capabilities.

The orchestra under Robertson’s baton, whilst powering through the extremes of Messiaen’s convoluted and occasionally trivial writing with composure and exceptional tenacity, seemed to lack dimensions of dynamic and textural balance, as well as some choices of tempo that lacked variety. Robertson quite fittingly captured in his opening remarks the ‘excessive’ nature of Turangalîla, but I found I was generally underwhelmed with the extent of this ‘excess’ that was explored and exploited throughout the entire performance – I longed to feel the polarising contrast of each section.

The acoustics of the Opera House can be unforgiving, which was exposed with an elaborate entourage of amplification – and this sadly detracted from the orchestra’s presence. I found that certain sections of the orchestra were unsynchronised with both Robertson, the soloists and/or the ensemble itself; on a micro scale. I also come back to the point of hurriedness, where certain points – in particular the ‘Theme of Love’ that is first shown in the fourth movement – was not held in suspense long enough, and felt glossed over.

Particular highlights of the night include the fiery Introduction, which started the evening with a bang. The Piccolo and Bassoon duet at the beginning of the fourth movement; a particular favourite section of mine, showcased a quaint and playful element amid the moodiness of the first half of the work. Though the density of musical colour displayed throughout the first half did occasionally lack depth, from the sixth movement onwards, a sudden warmth and life was breathed back into the orchestra, which allowed for the second half to soar. Robertson’s clear affinity with the Eighth movement rose the mentality of the orchestra – and no matter my conflicting opinion on the movement, it was performed with astonishing character by the entire ensemble. And of course, the fifth and tenth movements shone with the bright lights of American influence as well as representing the divinity and latent eroticism of the symphony.

Overall, this performance was an iridescent display of the meeting-point between the traditional and avant-garde by one of the greats of the 20th Century, performed with great calibre by all. It was worth the trip up from Melbourne, and the experience of seeing the titanic Turangalîla live again. I await its return to Australian concert halls, hopefully in the near future.

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