This week at Severance Hall saw The Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst present some of the most ambitious programming imaginable for a major orchestra: a festival anchored by three complete concert performances of Tristan und Isolde enhanced by two additional concerts of related music: a Wednesday night program devoted to Messiaen’s mighty Turangalîla-Symphonie, and a Saturday night program of music expressive of religious ecstasy, from Gabrielli and Bach to Pärt and Kernis by way of Liszt. The performance of the Turangalîla engaged two of its most ardent champions, namely pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (who appeared on this stage as recently as February), and Cynthia Millar, exponent of the ondes martenot who studied with Jeanne Loriod, sister of Messiaen’s second wife.

The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni
The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

Turangalîla, in its expression of love transcendent, was conceived as a direct response to Tristan, the middle work of Messiaen’s so-called “Tristan Trilogy” (flanked by the vocal works Harawi and Cinq rechants). Additionally, the work’s ten movements are bound together by four principal leitmotifs, a technique that surely took a cue from Wagner. An angular and vigorous gesture opened the work, leading to the first statement of the imposing “statue” motif in the low brass, answered by Thibaudet with tremolos far up into the piano’s upper register, and cascading brass brought the volcanic introductory movement to a close. Ecstatic playing began the ensuing Chant d’amour 1, later transforming into music of deep yearning, contrasted by percussive gestures in the piano – an instrument that played nearly continuously throughout the work’s span of some 80 minutes, a breathless display of pianistic athleticism from Thibaudet.

Movements three, seven, and nine each bear the title Turangalîla and counted among the work’s most aurally striking moments, with sonic variety achieved through colorful combinations of the diverse percussion battery, propelled forward by rhythms taking inspiration from the music of India. The first such movement was highlighted by a searching passage in the solo clarinet; the latter two were marked by thorny and quite jarring writing in the piano. Chant d’amour II had a singular grandeur and romantic sweep, as well as a formidable cadenza as if the pianistic demands weren’t already substantial enough.

The high octane Joie du Sang des Étoiles shimmered in its kaleidoscopic harmonies and crisp, metallic textures, the latter encouraged especially by the celesta. The statue motif resurfed to dramatic effect, hammered out with shattering force. Anecdotally, given the cosmic dimensions of the movement’s title, I couldn’t help but be reminded of when in the animated sitcom Futurama, the otherwise hapless delivery boy Philip J. Fry exclaims “I moved the stars themselves to write her a love note in the sky.” The recipient of such a gesture? Turanga Leela, a way in which an unlikely work has entered popular culture, as series creator Matt Groening is purportedly a Messiaen enthusiast.

Thibaudet, Welser-Möst and Millar © Roger Mastroianni
Thibaudet, Welser-Möst and Millar
© Roger Mastroianni

Jardin du Sommeil d'amour was perhaps the heart of the work, a surreal fantasy punctuated by the incessant call of the nightingale, Messiaen being the ever-astute ornithologist. The sense of peace achieved in the refuge of darkness certainly brought to mind Act Two of Tristan, and fine solos from principal clarinet and flute added to the movement’s mystical quality. The ondes martenot further offered a layer of ethereality, although to the contemporary ear it admittedly can sound dangerously close to the sound effects of a grade B horror film. Développement de l'amour was an arresting affair with the leitmotifs appearing in a myriad of guises in its rich tapestry and chains of chords, leading inexorably to a cataclysmic ending, in which it seemingly collapsed into itself as if being subsumed by a black hole. The finale, however, was joyous and exultant, and one felt as if at the end of marathon as the work closed in a blindingly bright supernova of orchestral color.

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