Messiaen’s L’Ascension came and went. It was fine, pleasant enough, nothing special. And then came Turangalîla.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

In the nearly seventy-year life of Turangalîla-symphonie, it’s hard not to argue that its fortunes have become ever more buoyant. The work has an uncanny, in some ways unique, ability to charm and disarm in equal measure, which perhaps explains in part how it’s more acceptable than most 20th-century modernism to listeners of a more delicate, sheltered persuasion. It’s hard not to get carried away by its rapid-fire structural shifts – one moment caressing the ears, the next confounding them – and (spoiler alert) the tumultuous applause and prolonged standing ovation received by Sakari Oramo, soloists Steven Osborne and Cynthia Millar, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was as much a testament to Messiaen’s delirious music as it was to their outstanding performance. But one of the problems that’s arisen from Turangalîla’s consolidation as a bona fide “classic” is the ease with which orchestras today can navigate its difficulties (only five years ago, at the Proms, the National Youth Orchestra took it on – and convincingly won). This may sound like a spurious concern, but if there’s one thing Turangalîla was surely never intended to sound, it’s manageable, even – heaven forbid – comfortable. Not all musicians recognise this, but Sakari Oramo clearly does. In the pre-concert talk he stated that the biggest danger when performing music is when it becomes “routine”. His Turangalîla was nothing of the kind.

He treated Messiaen’s material like it was Plasticine, although a more fitting analogy would be Silly Putty. The music stretched, compacted, bounced and reflected back on itself, always in the most unpredictable fashion. Thus, Oramo set up false expectations in the opening movement by taking it at such speed that its presentation of the symphony’s principal themes whizzed past as though on a souped-up conveyor belt. Ah, so it was going to be that kind of Turangalîla – but no, in the following couple of movements Oramo was altogether more measured, holding back, allowing the music’s bigger impacts to strike – hard – and then simply letting their resonance occupy the space for a time, in absolutely no hurry to move on. To use the word entirely literally, this proved revelatory. The players were, of course, helped by the extraordinary acoustic of Symphony Hall (can there be a better place anywhere to hear this work?) but the clarity of Messiaen’s complex, multi-layered textures in these opening movements was so transparent that in a curious way they almost seemed more difficult to parse than in the more muddy versions one usually encounters. Details, details everywhere: the composer’s love of rhythm – in the form of patterns, progressions and palindromes – was especially clear, aided in part by situating the piano, celesta and keyboard glockenspiel (what Messiaen called his “gamelan”) one behind the other at the front, as well as through subtly-executed articulations in the percussion.

Oramo clearly relished not only the severe gear changes in Turangalîla – which made the eighth movement really live up to its name, becoming a true development – but also the work’s extreme contrasts of soundworld. Messiaen’s enormous outbursts of impassioned lyricism, dispersed liberally throughout, were met with almost hyperbolic ardour from Oramo. Again in that eighth movement, one wondered whether Oramo had peaked too soon in the first of its three climaxes, each more protracted than the last. But even though the music kept threatening to blow its own flame out, the BBCSO somehow managed to keep it ablaze, making each wave of its multiple-orgasmic ecstasy more intense than the last. By contrast, the soft, dreamy sixth movement was taken much too slowly (a common mistake), the birds occupying Messiaen’s “garden of love’s sleep” sounding doped up on tranquillisers.

Yet it was at the opposite extreme, in the symphony’s boisterous, breakneck music, that Oramo not only made Turangalîla his own, but restored some of those qualities lost as its familiarity has become ubiquitous. The pace taken in some of these passages was so rapid that it obviously pushed the orchestra to the very brink of what was possible for them. Not so much in the fifth movement, turned on this occasion into a brisk circus scene with Oramo as its grinning ringmaster. Elsewhere, though, and above all in the rip-roaring final movement, the tempo seemed scarcely credible. In the wrong hands, when performed like this the elation in the music is drained away in a mere exercise of well-drilled virtuosity. Yet Sakari Oramo bravely allowed the music to fly by the seat of its pants, in the process practically coming apart at the seams. Turangalîla once again sounded only just playable – it sounded new! – and as a result its very real joy was positively euphoric.