Monday, 3 April 2017

MESSIAEN TURANGALILA / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (1 April 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 April 2017 with the title "Exploring yin and yang".

There are some works of music that get heard here maybe once in a lifetime. Britten's War Requiem, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and MacMillan's Seven Last Words come to mind. Rare as it may seem, Olivier Messiaen's massive Turangalila-Symphony featured on a Singapore Symphony Orchestra programme for only the second time.

Followers of the orchestra will remember the pair of performances conducted by Choo Hoey at Victoria Concert Hall in 1994. How those even got off the ground considering the orchestra's relative youth and that venue's small stage was a marvel. No such problems arose in Esplanade this time, with over a hundred musicians (including 10 percussionists) led by Shui Lan fitting comfortably onstage, and the vast auditorium to absorb its outsized sonic demands.

Comprising ten movements and playing for 75 minutes, Turangalila (composed in 1946-48) is an anomaly never to be repeated without the charge of plagiarism. Its title comes from Sanskrit words connoting rapid movement and life force. This was the French composer's grand conception of universal love, encompassing sacred, profane and carnal varieties. Often considered his most vulgar work, it is also his most popular.

These contradictions are reflected in its major themes, the monstrous and terrifying “Statue theme” brayed by the brass, contrasted by a soft and slender “Flower theme” heard on two clarinets. Recurring and balancing opposites, these represented masculine and feminine, essentially the work's yin and yang.

The same may refer to the soloists, pianist Andreas Haefliger's stentorian chords, lancinating trills and intoxicated cadenzas as opposed to Cynthia Millar's freewheeling on the Ondes Martenot. The latter is an electronic instrument, precursor of the synthesiser, producing tones from bass rumbles to high-pitched whistling, whining and glissandi in between. Both were excellent, and excellently supported by the orchestra.

The imposing opening was dominated by the “Statue theme”, its almighty strides conjuring a sense of dread which the “Flower theme” did little to dispel. Despite loud and deafening pages, there were also isolated oases of calm and reflection, often created by a few instruments. The deft use of percussion and unlikely combos (such as bassoon with piccolo) evoked Eastern mysticism, reflecting Messiaen's ecumenical spiritual worldview.

The 5th and 6th movements were the heart and contrasted centrepieces of the work. The unfettered outburts of frenzied sexual ecstasy in Joy Of The Blood Of Stars (almost a Karma Sutra set to music) could only be followed by the detumescence and quiet bliss of Garden Of Love's Sleep, where the indolent “Love theme” is introduced. At its serene end, one was left with a lingering echo of the Onde Martenot's last note.

By the 8th movement, the mighty “Statue theme” had been vanquished, toppling into an abyss according to Haefliger's preamble. Replacing it in the joyous finale was a glorious preroration of the “Love theme”, hammered out by the entire orchestra. In the arduous journey of life, the greatest of all is love. Judging by the rapturous applause after the overwrought and terrific performance, Messiaen's message had been well received.

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