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The Turangalila-Symphonie


Review by Carol Middleton

Published Oct 02

Turangalila-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen

Melbourne Concert Hall

Victorian Arts Centre

Sat 19 October (Melbourne Festival 2002)

Melbourne Symphony first performed Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie in 1985. One of the original soloists from that premiere returned to play in the orchestra’s Melbourne Festival performance of this monumental work. Takashi Harada, on ondes martenot, joined pianist Michael Kieran Harvey as soloists with the orchestra, under the baton of its Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Markus Stenz, on 19 October at the Melbourne Concert Hall.


In this 1948 composition, part of the Tristan trilogy, Messiaen juxtaposes the ethereal vibrato of the ondes martenot, a precursor to the synthesizer, with a percussive piano part and an expanded percussion section to create a closely textured symphonic work. Stenz drew a dynamic, finely shaded performance from the Melbourne Symphony. The dense layers of sound built to huge crescendos, lifted higher by the swooping phrases of Harada’s ondes and by the cymbals and drums in the back row of the orchestra.


Harada is a prolific ondist and composer and has introduced the general public to the instrument, playing regularly as a soloist with major orchestras around the world. His playing is calm, sensitive and understated, in stark contrast to Michael Kieran Harvey’s intensity.


Michael Kieran Harvey, known for his Messiaen interpretations, was in his element with this symphony. He attacked his part with athletic gusto as well as great precision and delicacy, springing snake-like to execute each bite-sized percussive phrase, recoiling immediately to cut the phrase short. On the other hand, when notes needed to be held, at the end of a movement, he would make sure the note resonated as long as our ears could detect it. He and Stenz worked together excellently on the fine-tuning of these dynamics.


The Turangalila-symphonie was the only item on the program. At one and a quarter hours long, it is not a symphony in the strict sense of the word, but a sprawling 10-movement work, redefining Messiaen's technique at the time and making use of many musical influences and references, from oriental percussion to Debussy. Although strident and disturbing in its darker moods, there are also moments of great lyricism, sensitively conveyed by the string section. The orchestra seemed to relish the challenge of playing this colossal and difficult work and executed it with the emotion and drama befitting the subject matter – the pain and ecstasy of human love.


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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton