Turangalîla at the Lighthouse


Bizet: Symphony in C
Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Kirill Karabits: Conductor
Steven Osborne: Piano
Cynthia Millar: Ondes Martinot

The BSO is 125 years old this year, but it’s showing no signs at all of senile decay.  This was an ambitious start to what promises to be another outstanding season at the Lighthouse for a heathy and vigorous orchestra constantly setting new standards of excellence.  The programme, stretching on to May 2018, contains an abundance of riches, shrewdly blending the familiar with the less familiar.  The relationship between Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits, the orchestra and the audience is so strong and trusting that demanding and unfamiliar music can be confidently programmed.

Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, written in the late 1940’s, is not really unfamiliar, with many recordings available on CD, but neither is it exactly mainstream.  Stretching over ten movements and 74 minutes, and needing a large extended orchestra, a virtuoso pianist, a team of eleven percussionists and a player of the electronic keyboard instrument the Ondes Martinot, any performance will be a special event.

Messiaen’s title comes from two Sanskrit words which according to the composer combine ideas of ‘love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death’.  This seems to cover most bases, but the symphony is perhaps best appreciated as pure sound without labouring the point of what it ‘means’.  And as an exploration of the intriguing combinations of familiar orchestra instruments with the less-familiar range of percussion and the Ondes Martinot, I found this performance was completely riveting.  The Ondes Martinot is played using a keyboard, a ring worn on the finger which produces glissando effects by being dragged along the keyboard, and a control panel operated by the left hand.  Sound is produced electronically and played through speakers.  The effect is a range of eerie, sometimes ‘science-fictiony’ sounds, as if Dr Who had dropped in.  When listening to the symphony on CD, I have sometimes felt that it rather dominated proceedings, but here, in the expert hands of Cynthia Millar, its volume was often muted so that it integrated into the heart of the sound rather than being stuck on top.  The same could be said for Stephen Osborne’s piano: sometimes given prominence but often blending with the rest of the orchestra.

Karabits provided his usual secure leadership, with the sometimes delirious and ecstatic music given its full emotional heft.  A special mention must be given to the four familiar faces in the trombone and tuba section, who rose to their usual heights of professionalism and musicianship in their powerful parts in the symphony.

The programme had started with a performance of Bizet’s Symphony in C, written in 1855 when the composer was a mere lad of 17.  Bizet didn’t have much confidence in it, and it was never published or performed in his lifetime, only coming to light and entering the repertoire in the 1930s.  The orchestra gave a clean, fresh, precise account of the score, with the strings impressively unanimous and coherent and the ever-reliable Edward Kay providing a characterful extended oboe solo in the second movement.

Enjoy the concert on BBC iPlayer by following this link:


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