Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms; Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony

Nicholas Hodges, Cynthia Millar, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Robertson

Barbican, London, 8 November 20114 stars

BBC SOThis entertaining concert conjoined two titans of twentieth century music. Though Stravinsky and Messiaen have both already been ushered through the door of canonicity into the repertoire, with Messiaen taking a seat in the corner and Stravinsky one in the centre, it is rare enough the two are found together on one programme. This concert let us mull over the convergences and divergences between the two.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was joined onstage in the first half by the BBC Symphony Chorus for Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. What was clear from the opening bars was just how contemporary this piece sounds. With the opening movement's pulsing homophonic woodwind ostinatos, piano-prompted setting of a clear tonal agenda, its choral intoning, and its setting of an ancient text, you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Louis Andriessen's De Staat.

This impression is reinforced by the instrumentation: Stravinsky strips the orchestra away to the type of performing ensemble you come across quite often these days – no violins, violas, or clarinets, and the piano in a prominent role. When as an undergraduate I learnt about early twentieth century music I remember the distaste surrounding Stravinsky's neo-classicism, his conservative shying away from the more adventurous musical threads being woven around that time. But given the amount of tonally-inflected music these days reaching our ears, whether minimalist, post-minimalist, new simplicity or what have you, it seems anachronistic at best or in general inaccurate to refer to neo-classicism for the Symphony of Psalms, whose contemporary resonances speak differently.

Though not bad, the BBC SO and Symphony Chorus's performance never threatened to raise the roof. At times there was imbalance between the voices and instruments and the performance overall lacked fire. The second 'Expectans expectavi' movement was wonderful: Bach's Musical Offering was a picture postcard away, and the double fugue was clearly articulated. But the coda to the final 'Laudate Dominum movement came a bit undone, the woodwind chords and timpani and piano bassline both being at times unsynchronised.

Form and colour bring Messiaen and Stravinsky together, both composers displaying abruptly juxtaposed blocks of discourse and a mastery of orchestration. But their respective styles push them apart, and here this was clearly heard in the contrast between the dour seriousness of the Symphony of Psalms and the excited-puppy exuberance of the Turangalîla Symphony. A revolving door of affinity and contrast, of course, always makes for good concert programmes, and such was the case here.

Turangalîla is a yawning monster, laying claim to the title of symphony, its unorthodox form notwithstanding, by virtue of its power, cohesiveness, scope, and recurring themes, which initially appear and subsequently develop throughout the winding course of the work. It's also at times boring, in true symphonic fashion. There are many challenges in performing this work, and it is a good measure of a conductor's power over the orchestra. All credit to David Robertson, who navigated the work with an excellent sense of pacing and much passion.

The first movement flew into life with healthy haste. The flurry was stopped in its tracks by the statue theme, lurching into view through the colossal chorus of tuba and trombones, who were excellent throughout. Playing the ondes martenot was Cynthia Millar. Though her playing was flawlessHodges – she has over one hundred performances of the work under her belt and counting – she suffered from frustratingly low volume, which left the ondes martenot, which should be a foam of the orchestral wave, much of the time submerged in the murk of colour.

Volume is, indeed, paramount in Turangalîla. The decibel level of the first movement very nearly blew the audience’s heads off, making you wonder what the Boston audience of 1949 made of the work's premiere.

The fourth movement, 'Chant d'amour 2', was a standout. Beginning with a theme on piccolo and bassoon which sounds bizarrely like a warped version of the Postman Pat theme, the movement gradually built up through the overlaying of themes one on top of the other to an exquisite cacophony. Nicholas Hodges took the piano part, his touch here as if magnet-drawn. But strangely it deserted him elsewhere: during the slow 'Jardin du sommeil d'amour' movement there were one or two clanging mistakes.

A defining characteristic of the symphony as a form is the ceaseless creation of connections between its manifold elements. In this sense Turangalîla is a twentieth century symphony up there with the best of them. In this reading, which came to an end excellently with the Gershwin-esque finale, the impression was conveyed of a self-contained world exploding into sudden life for eighty minutes before fading away again.

By Liam Cagney

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