Given the massive – and idiosyncratic – forces required, any performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie is a big event. Under Music Director Gustavo Gimeno, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the 20th-century French master’s sole symphony was a barn-burner in more ways than one. The work’s disorienting eclecticism, running the gamut from hoedown to a metaphysical paean to love–death, was pulled off with virtuosity and even a degree of subtlety by the TSO.

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Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
© Allan Cabral

Probably the best way to listen to Turangalîla is how someone recommended I watch the new Joachim Phoenix film, Beau is Afraid – just go along for the ride and don’t even try to question its seemingly unrelated, absurdist plot strands. Likewise, Messiaen throws all manner of musical styles at us: full on serialist cacophony, shimmering Debussian moments that conjure Impressionist lily pads and toe-tapping rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place at a barn dance. 

The latter were jauntily delivered by Gimeno and his forces at the beginning of the fifth movement entitled Joy of the Blood of the Stars. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bernstein’s dances in West Side Story, which may be no accident considering the American conducted Turangalîla’s first performances with the Boston Symphony in 1949, just eight years before his great Broadway musical premiered. The TSO mastered the rapid rhythmic and coloristic shifts as the rustic dance figures disintegrate into borderline serial chaos, then back again. 

Like many great 20th-century symphonists, Messiaen prominently features the grand piano as part of his coloristic mix. Canadian Marc-André Hamelin delivered the virtuosic cadenzas and percussive riffs with great authority. At first, I was concerned that even with the piano at full stick, the massive orchestra was going to sonically obliterate him even as he pounded the keyboard in its topmost register. But as things settled, Hamelin's contribution was integral to the evening’s success.

Turangalîla famously foregrounds the ondes Martenot, a quivering, ghostly voice-like electronic instrument invented in 1927. For many, it still conjures up cheap Saturday morning children’s sci-fi tv programming. Here it was played by France’s Nathalie Forget, one of the world’s key proponents of the instrument. It is heard to haunting effect in the sixth movement which finds Messiaen at his most ethereal and Impressionistic, where the ondes lends an appropriately hypnotic, druggy edge meriting the movement's title, Garden of Love’s Sleep.

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Nathalie Forget, Gustavo Gimeno, Marc-André Hamelin and the Toronto Symphony
© Allan Cabral

Messiaen was fascinated with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde while writing Turangalîla. Some of the most thrilling moments in this TSO performance were the surging climaxes that transmute the brutal “statue theme” introduced by the trombones and tuba into ecstatic outpourings in the strings reminiscent of the resolution to Wagner’s Liebestod for Isolde where she finds love in death. This also recalls “lîla” in the work’s title which means the spiritual-physical union of love. 

All props must go to the TSO’s percussion section which impressively navigated all manner of tricky cross-rhythms as well as delivering thrills to the solar plexus. In addition to the piano, the score requires a plethora of additional keyboard instruments including celesta, glockenspiel and vibraphone which help give the work its signature, unusually bright sound palette. Other than Hamelin and Forget, the program neglected to mention the other keyboardists, likewise the expanded percussion section was anonymous. 

Turangalîla holds a special place in the TSO’s repertoire as it was the orchestra’s first commercial recording release in 1967 under the baton of its then music director, Seiji Ozawa. Fittingly, in its 100th anniversary season, these performances are being recorded live for Harmonia Mundi. A thrilling performance that has thankfully been laid down to posterity for future generations to enjoy.