Simon Rattle conducts Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie”

11 Sep 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tristan Murail

  • Richard Wagner
    Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act 1 and Liebestod (21 min.)

  • Olivier Messiaen
    Turangalîla-Symphonie for piano, ondes martenot and large orchestra (81 min.)

    Pierre-Laurent Aimard Piano, Tristan Murail Ondes Martenot

Hardly any other composer combines as many contradicting elements in his works as Olivier Messiaen. Inertia and dynamic force, deep piety and passionate sensuality, highly complex rhythmic structures and exuberant melodies, esoteric design principles and tremendous popular appeal are juxtaposed in his music. Messiaen is thus regarded as the most important French composer between Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez, who studied with him.

The Turangalîla-Symphonie, the premiere of which was conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Boston in 1948, is Messiaen’s best-known work and features an ensemble typical of him. The large, dazzling symphony orchestra is augmented by an often percussive piano and the distinctively iridescent sounds of the ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic musical instruments.

The symphony, whose title comes from ancient Indian Sanskrit, comprises ten movements connected by recurring themes and depicts Messiaen’s exploration of a love that exceeds all earthly limits and leads to death. It is the central instrumental work of the composer’s Tristan trilogy and is framed by two vocal works. In this concert from September 2008 Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker prefaced the work with the orchestral version of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The concert took place during the Berlin Musikfest, which devoted one of its programmatic focusses to Messiaen, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth.


Music Dramas by Wagner and Messiaen

The tragic conflict in Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde,first performed in 1865 in Munich, is largely played out, not through an intensification of verbal language or situations, but rather in this immense work’s extraordinarily symphonic conception (which begs the question: is it really an opera at all?). An exception is the lovers’ great dialogue in Act II, their intimate nocturnal communion – so far removed from the external world – into and out of which everything flows. In the final act there remains only one possibility: the death of love or “love-death” – a death outside of time and space.

Tristan und Isolde is arguably Wagner’s most perfectly realized composition, a drama that succeeds in uniting two opposing forces: overflowing life and a deeply internalized longing for death. These energies and the lovers’ emotional states are already encapsulated in the Prelude, based on a four-note chromatic phrase first heard on the oboe. More critical ink has been spilled over this extraordinary composition, whose harmonic audacity is often credited with ushering in modern music, than perhaps any other in history. Berlioz, who confessed in 1860, that he hadn’t the slightest idea of what the composer intended, heard it as “a slow piece, beginning pp, rising gradually to ff and then subsiding into the quiet of the opening, with no other theme than a sort of chromatic moan, but full of dissonances, whose cruelty is further accentuated by long appoggiaturas which completely replace the true harmony-note”. Wagner, writing in the same year, described the introduction to his “love drama” as “one long breath” in which “unfulfilled longing swells from the first gentle tremor of attraction, through half-heaved sighs, hopes and fears, laments and wishes, joy and torment, to a resolute attempt to find the opening of a path for the heart into the sea of endless love’s delight. In vain! Its power spent, the heart sinks back to pine of its desire – desire without attainment.”

Olivier Messiaen, possessor of Wagnerscores and admirer of the music since childhood, composed his Turangalîla Symphony – the second work in a trilogy based on the Tristan and Isolde myth – in 1948 to a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere at Symphony Hall on 2 December 1949.

The name Turangalîla is Sanskrit, a combination of lîla,meaning “play” or “game” in the sense of divine action upon the cosmos, the play of creation and of destruction but also meaning “love”,and turanga: “time” that passes like a galloping horse and flows like the sand in an hourglass. Messiaen, for whom the most important things were, in order, God, love and nature, called it “a song of love and a hymn of joy”: this vast work for monster orchestra with enormous percussion section, coloured by the electronic whistling and shrieking of the ondes martenot, and a heroically demanding solo piano part, written for Yvonne Loriod, one of Messiaen’s composition pupils and later his second wife.

There are ten movements in the Turangalîla Symphony. The Introduction,in two sections linked by a piano cadenza, presents two of the work’s main musical ideas, the monumental “statue” theme introduced by trombones and tubas, supported by the first appearance of the piano and ondes martenot, and the delicate “flower” theme, briefly introduced by two clarinets. Chant d’amour 1: The first “song of love” alternates two violently contrasting aspects, carnal passion (trumpets) and tender idealism (ondes martenot and strings).Turangalîla 1:An episodic movement based on three themes – gently nostalgic (ondes martenot, clarinet); powerful (heavy brass and jangling “gamelan”); lyrical (oboe with clarinet and flute).Chantd’amour 2:A moderately paced movement with two contrasting ideas (heard first in succession, then superimposed). Before the serene ending, a brief piano cadenza ushers in a recall of the “flower” and “statue” themes. Joie du sang des étoiles: The scherzo movement brings an ecstatic climax, a frenzied “African dance” (Messiaen) alternating with a rhythmically complex trio section and ending with the “statue theme” in triumph. Jardin du sommeil d’amour: The symphony’s slow movement, with the “love theme” on ondes martenot and muted strings, ornamented by vibraphone and glockenspiel and piano birdsong. Messiaen writes: “The two lovers are immersed in the sleep of love. A landscape has emanated from them. The garden which surrounds them is called ‘Tristan’; the garden which surrounds them is called ‘Isolde’. This garden is full of light and shade, of plants and new flowers, of brightly coloured and melodious birds… Time flows on, forgotten, the lovers are outside time. Let us not wake them.” Turangalîla 2: A brief, sinister movement, introduced by a piano cadenza, with percussion interludes and featuring a recurring “fan” idea (ondes martenot, trombones) that opens and closes. Développement de l’amour: The development of the symphony’s main themes and of the love between Tristan and Isolde. Turangalîla 3: Variations on a theme announced by the clarinet but dominated by percussion playing complex rhythmic layers on a cushion of strings. Final: In sonata form with a jubilant brass fanfare as first subject and a quick, barely recognizable version of the “love theme” (ondes martenot and strings) as second subject. In the coda, the “love theme” at its normal slow tempo emerges in full glory.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard was born in Lyon in 1957 and studied with Yvonne Loriod and Maria Curcio at the Paris Conservatoire. He won the 1973 International Messiaen Competition and with that was launched on his international career. For eighteen years he worked as solo pianist with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, taking part in countless world premieres and establishing a reputation for himself as one of the leading interpreters of contemporary music. Known especially for his unusual take on a repertory deemed familiar, he is also a committed teacher and communicator, holding teaching posts in Paris and Cologne and doing much to introduce audiences to works of all periods and to currents in new music. Among his awards are a Grammy and an ECHO Klassik Prize. In 2005 the Royal Philharmonic Society voted him Instrumentalist of the Year, an accolade that was bestowed on him again in 2007, this time by Musical America. In 2008 he served as artistic director of the Messiaen Festival held at London’s Southbank Centre. He made his Philharmonie debut in mid-December 1997 within the framework of a piano recital organized by the Berliner Philharmoniker and since then has returned many times for the orchestra’s symphony and chamber concerts as well as giving solo recitals. During the 2006/07 season he was the orchestra’s pianist in residence.

Tristan Murail was born in Le Havre. After taking courses in Arabic, economics and political science, he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen in Paris between 1967 and 1971, while also attending the ondes martenot class of Jeanne Loriod and Maurice Martenot. He won the Paris Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome in 1971, bringing him into close contact with Giacinto Scelsi, whose research into the acoustic properties of sound had a profound effect on his own development. In 1973 he joined forces with a number of other composers and interpreters to form L’Itinéraire, a Paris-based ensemble dedicated to establishing new links between traditional instruments and electronic music. His own compositions are examples of spectral music. The holder of many awards, including a Grand Prix du Disque and membership of the Académie Française, he taught at the Paris Conservatoire and the prestigious Paris-based IRCAM, before being appointed professor of composition at Columbia University, New York, in 1997. As a performer on the ondes martenot he appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker as long ago as 1977 in a performance of Varèse’s Ecuatorial under Hans Zender. His most recent appearance was in late September 2002, when he took part in performances of Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.

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