Pierre Boulez once spoke of Olivier Messiaen as the great universaliser, a composer who found bold links between civilisations and cultures in ways nobody else would dare. In some ways, this is true of Turangalîla; Messiaen’s 70-minute long survey of the two true universals (‘time’ – turanga and ‘love’ –  lîla) is built on an arsenal of international percussion and several instruments outside of the orchestral canon, creating a hybrid of a symphony and a double concerto built on Javanese pentatonics, birdsong, atonal and tonal musical languages. Then again, Vasily Petrenko’s eloquent introduction to the concert sought to reconcile Messiaen with the 20th-century symphonic canon, stressing the work’s symphonic credentials in relation to Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, and highlighting its popularity following its première by a young Leonard Bernstein in 1949.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Despite Petrenko’s claims regarding the work’s popularity, it came as a surprise that such an established part of the repertoire has only been performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra once, in a concert 50 years ago under the baton of Sir Charles Groves. It was even more of a surprise when Petrenko revealed in the post-concert talk how few members of the orchestra had played the work before. The vitality and attentiveness of the orchestra shown throughout the concert perhaps reflected this; this was a high-class, concentrated performance of a tough orchestral work, especially given the noted dearth of rehearsals amongst the RLPO’s busy schedule.

What really impressed was Petrenko’s demarcation of Messiaen’s complex structure. Whether his approach was informed by Messiaen’s own ideas of personnages (shifting relationships between layers of dominant, reactionary and commentary music) is unclear; Petrenko mentioned it in his pre-show talk, but totally rejected any semblance of “mathematics” in Messiaen’s modernism afterwards. Notwithstanding this question, the orchestra held together a clear sense of structure throughout, not an easy feat given the eclectic range of subject materials and their multiple permutations. The combination of an electrically responsive string section and a conductor entirely confident and comfortable with numerous tempi made for a lucid follow, contradicting popular myths surrounding the piece’s bewildering overwhelming structure. Also helping to demystify the work were Gerald Larner’s neat programme summaries, directing the listener acutely towards important musical waypoints to aid individual interpretation and give a wider context.

The piece’s opening was intriguing, more for the effect of the Philharmonic Hall’s acoustic than anything. Turangalîla’s sizeable proportions have given the work an afterlife associated with large symphony orchestras, huge recordings and performances restricted to the world’s largest concert halls. The Philharmonic Hall’s modest size meant a slightly cramped stage for the performers, but the intimacy brought an intensity is rarely found in large halls. Petrenko obviously thrives on such a close bond between audience, orchestra and conductor. Because of the acoustic, the expectations of a titanic opening trombone theme were pleasantly evaded, in favour of a more direct, less boomy sound, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

Both soloists played their unusual roles expertly. Steven Osborne, a master Messiaen interpreter, contrasted what Bernstein described as “quiet chaos” in an accompanying role with a punctuating virtuosity in the fiendishly tricky cadenza sections. Nathalie Forget, one of France’s leading ondes Martenot players, gave an equally superb performance. The ondes Martenot is often characterised as an oddity, collecting cultural associations with aliens, sci-fi and the like, but Messiaen’s treatment incorporates it as a yet another tone colour, and it occupied a unique yet complementary role in the overall texture, complementing the leader with timbrally similar material in the pair’s birdsong exchanges in the second movement.

The main highlights were found in the sheer exuberance of the opening three movements sheer exuberance. The absolute unanimity in pizzicato cellos, basses and percussion in the opening movement interjections was thrilling. Equally impressive were the scarily quiet clarinet and ondes Martenot conversations in the third movement, and the nuanced scherzo opening of the fourth. The most serene music, in the sixth movement, exhibits a stillness captured in the wake of the jubilant fifth, Osborne playing his sparse material with as much attention and feeling as the more technically-demanding music.

The final maddened flickering between ideas was executed perfectly; the ninth in particular teaches an important lesson to composers and theorists (as well as audience members) on the preservation and development of an economy of ideas, and was played with enough contrast in tempi, colour, character and dynamics to give each idea subtlety without damaging the music’s progress. A standing ovation was richly deserved from an audience engaged and excited by music-making in Liverpool for a hugely successful artistic partnership backed by stellar soloists.