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Most surprising, I should say, that this account of Turangalila should be receiving its first notice here only now. In his more recent eminence as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Rattle has received high praise, and rightly so, for his recording of Messiaen's Eclairs sur l'Au-dela. However it was through his work with the City of Birmingham Symphony that Rattle first came to international notice for sheer and simple genius, and this performance will go a long way to showing why.
Rattle has Messiaen's style to perfection, and he is joined in this 1986 recording by Peter Donohoe, greatly under-recognised in my own opinion, as a completely exemplary piano soloist. The piano part is very difficult and the composer himself made references to the work as a `piano concerto', which I think a slight exaggeration. What it really is is a symphony with piano obbligato, a description first coined for the Brahms D minor. The description fits Turangalila much better, but Brahms's grim masterpiece came to mind shortly after the start with some memorable martellato trills from the soloist. Otherwise there is nothing grim about Turangalila, which is a huge upbeat masterpiece like Mahler's 8th, and one that can be mentioned in the same breath so far as I am concerned. The title is apparently Sanskrit (how's that for one-upmanship?) and means something like `play of time'. Its theme is love, ordinary human love and not something with a divine dimension except insofar as it is set against a background of eternity, as is everything that the deeply spiritual Messiaen ever did. In terms of how it deals with its theme it fits Beethoven's description of his own Pastoral Symphony very well `more expression of feeling than depiction' - it would be easy to recognise the movements called `Joy of the blood of the stars' and `Garden of love's repose', but I imagine it would be anyone's guess which of the remainder are the 3 Turangalila movements, which are the 2 love-songs and which is about the `development of love' if we had not been told. As usual, the expression is extrovert, perhaps a little kitsch and probably more than a little self-indulgent. I have no complaint with any of that, as this is a composer I take to in a big way without sharing a shred of his religious belief. His grasp of orchestral sound, for one thing, is simply colossal, he can carry off demotic effects that would have made Ravel or Delius hesitate, and Rattle is exactly the man to put it all across to us. One thing conspicuous by its absence from this score is Messiaen's beloved birdsong effects, but music lovers bored with Holst's Jupiter may find, as I do, the Joie du sang des etoiles something more to their taste.
There is also a performance here of the Quartet for the End of Time that would have had me buying this disc for just on its own. It rivals the famous Tashi account and in fact predates it by several years. It is a more emotional and forceful account than Tashi's, which may or may not be how you like it done, but by any standard it is a superb one. As a final filler there is a 6-minute flute and piano duo called The Blackbird. In this let me reassure you that it's not actually William Pleeth, great cellist though he is, who has taken up the flute, but Karlheinz Zoller. The blackbird's song, when he takes up his recital-position at the end of a branch or at the corner of a rooftop, is one of the most varied in the whole avian kingdom as well as one of the loveliest. What I don't hear in this representation is the familiar `tweety oodle-doodle peep: twit twit twit twit twit' that I know from my local virtuoso, but Messiaen knew birdsong better than I have ever done.
The recordings, respectively from 1986, 1971 and 1968 are very good, if not quite up to the superlative standard of the same conductor's more recent Eclairs, but any music-lovers worried about that are just too fussy I should say. This is a superlative set, and it's high time someone said so.
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The appeal in this release is that it contains two of Olivier Messiaen's (1908-1992) best known works, the Turangalila Symphony and the Quartet for the End of Time, at a budget price. The performance of the symphony by the City of Birmingham Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle is quite fine. The sound quality, however, is a bit fuzzy, especially by today's standards. Although, this is not surprising considering that the symphony and quartet were recorded in 1971 (DDD) and 1968 (ADD) respectively. If you are looking to acquire the symphony, I'll indicate newer recordings are available (ex: Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony; L'ascension). However, this release can be recommended to those looking to pick up both pieces together, or to those looking to hear a different interpretation of these works.
Now to the controversial part (Messiaenites need not read further, as the next portion of this review is directed to those unfamiliar with these works and contains my impression of these two works, as a newcomer to this composer). Upon examining the various Messiaen releases on Amazon, I was surprised by the great number of ecstatic reviews for Messiaen's works. Why had I not come across the music sooner, or so I thought at the time.
Well, I listened to the music. But even after approaching each work several times, I am still a little confused by Messiaen's compositional style. I understand that both works have an overarching meaning (especially the quartet); however this was not apparent to this listener.
On a whole, I enjoy symphony more than the quartet. Many parts of the symphony are quite enjoyable in their uniqueness. There is a lot of interesting percussion writing. The symphony even includes a part for an electronic instrument called the ondes martenot. The writing for this instrument tends to include glissandos between pitches, and reminds me of the sound effect used to depict whirring UFO's in those black and white science fiction movies (CD1 - Track 8). The writing in Turangalila is often exuberant and contains readily identifiable melodic ideas over busy orchestral and percussion writing, such as in "Joie du sang des etoiles" (CD1 - Track 5). But at 80 minutes and with total movements numbering ten, I found the work to be a little long. I found that, sometime in the seventh movement I was ready for a break from Messiaen's world of sound. I noted that the motives presented in the earlier movements occasionally appeared throughout the symphony, but for me, this wasn't enough to hold the whole work together. Even the movements themselves seem to be a little long-winded. Sure, any snippet of "Jardin du sommeil d'amour" (CD1 - Track 6) is lovely - but why does this movement go on for 12 minutes? Other movements, such as long and repetitive "Developpement de l'amour" tends to addle me just a bit. So my thoughts on the symphony is somewhat mixed. I will rarely return to the music for a start to finish listening. However, some of the movements are enjoyable as well as interesting and I occasionally listen to those every now and then.
I found the quartet, scored for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, to be far less enjoyable. Again, this is a long work, containing eight movements. Although this is a quartet, the writing within the movements themselves rarely has four parts appearing simultaneously. For instance, the third movement (CD 2 - Track 5) is a 6 minute clarinet solo, while the fifth movement is a duet for piano and cello. For me, this serene movement (CD 2 - Track 7) is the most successful of the quartet, but it tends to go on just a bit too long. My least favorite movements would be the third, or maybe the second (CD 2 - Track 4), with its harsh introduction and the endless phrase scored for violin, cello and piano that occupies the last four minutes of the movement. I feel like this music is supposed to give the impression of timelessness, but to me, much of this is just boring.
In conclusion, I would place this release somewhere between two and three stars, but I will round down in this case given this particular performance, and to provide some contrast to all the five star reviews out there. But, of course, all of this is just an opinion. Anyone new to this music (after listening to the sound clips) should weigh this one less-than-stellar review, against the highly favorable reviews of Messiaen's works contained herein.
CD 1: 68:39
CD 2: 63:14