Tuesday 2 September 2008

Prom 64: BPO/Rattle - Wagner and Messiaen, 2 September 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and ‘Liebestod’
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Tristan Murail (ondes martenot)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The myth of Tristan and Isolde was an important inspiration for Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony. More importantly, Wagner’s music was substantial enough – perhaps something of an understatement – to provide a first part to this concert in itself, without exhausting players or audience. Indeed, it left me wanting to hear more of Tristan und Isolde from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Whilst I have never quite been able to eradicate my doubts concerning the ‘rightness’ – as much tonal as dramatic – of performing the Prelude to Act I followed by the so-called ‘Liebestod’, this performance was as fine as I have heard in separation from the rest of Wagner’s drama. The opening ’cello A was at least as beautifully soft as I have heard – in any performance, complete or otherwise – thereby allowing the ensuing phrase to swell to perfection, and with not only a ravishing but a deeply expressive vibrato, thus setting the pattern for the following sequences. This music was taken marvellously slowly too, whilst at the same time always moving forward. The oboe solo was just as beautiful, once again with perfectly judged vibrato. Rattle’s reading was seamless yet far from uneventful, reminiscent indeed of Karajan. Wave upon wave built up, gathering pace each time until the superbly judged climax. The transition to the ‘Liebestod’ was not helped by a barrage of coughs but was as good as one could hope for, given the inherent tonal difficulty in connection the two excerpts. This was very much – and rightly so – a Verklärung (Wagner’s own term, meaning ‘transfiguration’) for Isolde rather than a Liebestod (‘love-death’). Wagner and therefore we owed Liszt an almost incalculable debt, both literally and figuratively, yet we have him to blame for this misnomer, which has caused no end of confusion ever since. No matter: Rattle conveyed joy, release, even optimism – Lohengrin is Wagner’s only real tragedy – in a performance that pulsated with life. Rattle was punctilious in revealing details of scoring, resulting in a refreshingly Boulezian account, alive – and with especial aptness in the context of this particular programme – to the music’s legacy for French as well as German music. A daring ritardando at the close paid off handsomely.

After the interval, there followed a fine performance of the Turangalîla symphony, which went deeper than many contemporary, ‘showpiece’ renditions. Rhythms were tight and implacable where necessary, whilst the music extended and luxuriated when that was called for. From the first movement, the ‘Introduction’, there was a commendable clarity, even when different themes were superimposed upon one another. The trombone ‘statue’ them, here and elsewhere, sounded appropriately Mussorgskian; indeed, I do not recall ever hearing it so much revealing this heritage. There were also some splendidly piercing sounds, ratcheting the decibel count to a level that – whisper it! – would doubtless have concerned European Union snoopers. In the first ‘Chant d’amour’, the contrast Rattle drew between the opening two themes, the trumpets’ triumphant shout and the almost sickly sweet response from the strings and the excellent Tristan Murail on ondes martenot, was clear, yet I wondered whether it might have been still more sharply drawn. This was more or less my only cavil concerning the performance, however, and it might well be objected that the two themes in any case need to come together to form the symphony’s composite love-theme. There was an air of mystery from the very outset of the first ‘Turangalîla’ movement. It was not quite clear what the question, let alone the answer, might be – which is just as it should be, and all the more Tristan-esque. I can sympathise with Boulez’s practice during a 1973 Prom, of performing only the three ‘Turangalîla’ movements, yet ultimately that would be far too high a price to pay for fastidious taste. Messiaen explained the ‘lîla’ part of his title as denoting ‘play’ in Sanskrit: ‘play in the sense of the divine action upon the cosmos, the play of creation, of destruction, of reconstruction, the play of life and death.’ This sense of play was caught unerringly in the woodwind during the opening of the fourth movement, the second ‘Chant d’amour’. If the rest of the movement went on a bit, then that is not the fault of the performers. The piano cadenza was superlatively rendered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who played from memory throughout. And the final bars attained true serenity.

The ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ sounded bizarrely and appositely of Hollywood. Ondes martenot, strings, and celesta were very much to the fore, with excellent contributions from the brass. Try as I might – and in all honesty, I did not try so very hard – I really could not resist. One could hardly censure Rattle for milking the climax; it cries out for this. It is hardly the place for Boulezian anti-rhetoric. (Or is it? We shall have to wait for a different performance to find out.) The tranquillity of muted strings and ondes martenot then provided a perfect setting against which the following movement’s piano and woodwind phrases could tell. Clarinet and flute were especially notable in this ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. The languor of sleep – Messiaen spoke of lovers ‘outside time’ – was exquisitely captured. Here the length seems more justified and certainly more welcome than it had been in the fourth movement. The opening piano cadenza of the second ‘Turangalîla’ movement was once again dazzlingly rendered, as was the following passage for ondes martenot and trombones. The Berlin Philharmonic’s percussion section grasped the opportunity to shine here. As a whole, the movement’s strangeness was powerfully conveyed and its concision was most welcome.

One certainly could not accuse the following ‘Développement de l’amour’ of concision. Yet the combination of the work’s various themes was very well handled, each retaining its character whilst gaining something by the juxtaposition and new contexts. (I am not at all sure that there is any real ‘development’ here, but never mind.) The movement’s climax was duly exultant. For the third and final ‘Turangalîla’ movement, the orchestra’s woodwind soloists once again proved outstanding, helping to prepare an impressive sense of inevitability for the piano’s capture of their theme. Rattle again excelled in facilitating the combination of themes. The finale rejoiced in a fitting sense of ‘occasion’, a true culmination to a notable performance of this extraordinary work.