When Gershwin’s An American in Paris  premiered in Paris in 1928, the eminent critic Paul Rosenfeld was not impressed. The work was, in his words, “poorer in themes than either of its predecessors; and when, after losing its way, the music turns into the lively, somewhat meaningless sort of flourish usually supplied in the finales of musical comedy first acts”.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Such criticism doesn’t seem to have much dented the piece’s popularity. This Prom premiered a new critical edition of the work by Mark Clague, which, if anything, ramped up the flourish with richer saxophones and riotous imitation taxi horns. And Sakari Oramo, comfortable at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, could not have looked as if he was enjoying it more.

Oramo, at his best, is a joy to watch, and here he was in his element. Revelling in the luscious orchestrations and sumptuous melodies, it was a rare treat to bask in such obvious delight from both conductor and orchestra in the delicious push and pull. Notes were bent and stretched so far that the brass were almost in the next room: strings were bowed lugubriously: percussion was one moment whipped into a frenzy, the next lazily left plodding along. The interval lights, when they came on, felt like a sensible security guard booting out a riotous bash.

How to follow that? Messiaen’s huge Turangalîla Symphony is, in many respects, far removed from Gershwin’s easy, breezy classic. The ondes Martenot alone, handled with exquisite care by Cynthia Millar, adds its own mysterious, ethereal, almost alien ambience: haunting mirrored melodies exchanged between oboes and strings compete with a strong brass statue theme, terrible and magnificent in equal measures.

This is an epic about death, time and sleep, yes – but its main impetus is love. Love in its all of its messy, frivolous capricity in ten glorious, insensible movements. Several members of the audience left, tutting and frowning, between movements at the riotous abandon: the BBCSO did not hold back, nor were they encouraged to. For those who stayed, Angela Hewitt’s glistening cadenzas and crashing chords were as spell-binding as those magical ondes.

In some ways, Turangalîla is like Gershwin at its most extreme – overlapping rhythms, riotous brass, and a clear joy in its own sound. The sixth movement, Jardin du sommeil d’amour, was impressively reserved, with the gentlest of temple blocks keeping momentum. Not everything worked: the three Turangalîla movements, already scored to be almost inscrutable, often lost focus, and the orchestra perhaps occasionally played with so much abandon that Oramo found it difficult to rein them back in.

However, this was never cacophonous, even in the most exuberant moments. The Finale, dispatched indeed with “une grande joie”, was playful and excitable, but measured. The entire work is an homage to love, and if this orchestra showed anything, it was that love is often discordant;  it is carnal and terrible but also playful, rebellious, even sweet – but above all, under the beguiling Oramo, it is always, always passionate.  

*****