Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

A thrilling new recording of Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie

Boulez called it 'brothel music' – but it's far from this in Gustavo Gimeno and the Toronto Symphony's rendition

Grade: A

Pierre Boulez once called Messiaen’s giant Turangalila-Symphonie ‘brothel music’. That was mean-spirited but you knew what he meant: a typical performance comes in at just under 80 minutes, much of it consisting of the B-movie sound of an ondes Martenot wailing over lush harmonies. There’s a constant zig-zag of polyrhythms, plus great towers of brass that represent ‘the heavy, terrifying brutality of old Mexican monuments’ – but, yes, it can hang around like cheap scent.

But not in this recording by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under its music director Gustavo Gimeno, who lingers only where he has to. The effect is not hurried but bouncy and clean-limbed, allowing us to hear the intricacy of the rythmic argument. Understanding it is another matter: Messiaen devised mathematical theories of pitch that inspired his pupil Stockhausen, and in this (relatively) light-texured performance the connection doesn’t seem so implausible. But in the ecstatic finale I heard something else – not so much Hollywood as Leonard Bernstein on Broadway. Maybe it was just my imagination, but Fancy Free and On the Town were written before Turangalila – and guess which young conductor gave the world premiere in Boston in 1949.

Gimeno’s hairpin dynamics are thrilling, Nathalie Forget somehow makes her electronic contraption dance, and the icing on the cake is the spidery, jazz-inflected piano solo of Marc-André Hamelin. Maybe you prefer the more familiar psychedelic swoon, in which case stick with Toronto and the late Seiji Ozawa’s positively orgiastic reading from 1968. But Gimeno has given us a Turangalila for our times, and in just 73 minutes – still 20 minutes too long, but that’s Messiaen’s fault.

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