There is no shortage of fine performances of this symphony on CD; add this one to the pile. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to screw up Messiaen, not that many haven’t tried (and succeeded), because the music is entirely formulaic and all you really need to do is play the notes and it will come out pretty well. This is not a derogatory criticism of the composer: lots of excellent music relies on formulas, and Messiaen’s are both personal and musically satisfying. My point is simply that he exercises very strict control over the interpretive latitude he offers his performers. In the case of the large orchestral works, this comes down to questions of tempo and ensemble balance, assuming the music is accurately played in the firstRead more place.
So it’s remarkable that conductor Juanjo Mena packs so much individual character into his interpretation. At first, his tempos seem a bit too fleet, his textures rather light, especially in the first two movements; but after the orgiastic “Joy of the Blood of the Stars” comes a very slow, ineffably dreamy “Garden of Love’s Sleep”, and it all falls into place. Mena also offers perhaps the best account of the three Turangalila movements on disc. These rhythmic studies can sound puzzling. The word itself means, modestly, “life/death, creation/destruction, cosmic play of the universe”, or some such nonsense, but in this performance the clarity and precision of the playing really does present the music as the cold, grinding mechanism of a gigantic, cosmic machine. It’s frightening and wonderful at the same time: try the sound sample below from Turangalila I.
This is, in sum, is a fully realized vision of the work, from Mena’s unusually sexy handling of the love music, to the raucously celebratory finale, and it all fits comfortably onto a single disc (77 minutes). The Bergen Philharmonic plays superbly, though the ensemble sounds slightly small due to the forward placement of the keyboard soloists and Ondes Martenot (love that touch, though). Too many performances treat the Ondes as an embarrassment, and bury it in the texture; Mena and his engineers revel in its creepy-comic sonorities, and they are right to do so. Steven Osborne, a Messiaen specialist and all-around wonderful pianist, plays his solo part as well as anyone ever has, and also more than merits the up-front focus. First rate.