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REVIEW: PROM 6 – Gershwin and Messiaen

Sakari Oramo
Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

PROM 6 Gershwin and Messiaen
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo
(Royal Albert Hall. 18 July 2018. Review by John L. Walters)

The decision to pair George Gershwin’s An American in Paris with Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony was a stroke of wayward genius. Gershwin (1898-1937) achieved much in his short life, but had he lived longer one wonders whether he might have felt the need to produce a symphonic work even more grandiose and outrageously emotional than Messiaen’s 77-minute masterwork, nearly an hour longer than the Gershwin.

An American in Paris, which we heard in Mark Clague’s new critical edition (a UK premiere) pushes all the end stops, bringing Tin Pan Alley into the heart of a symphony orchestra that has somehow swallowed a 1920s jazz band in one gulp. The piece starts at a cracking pace and barely pauses for breath during its glorious 18-odd minutes.The swaggering passage for jazz band front line and swirling strings has a fruitiness that few composers (other than Messiaen) could bring off, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra benefited from the richly authentic tones of its brass and reeds players: Alan Thomas’s drawling, vibrato-laden solo trumpet was a treat. The score foregrounds brass and percussion and the new edition incorporates Gershwin’s original tuning specifications for car horns which the percussionists play ahead of the beat like impatient cabbies. (Listen to a short NPR interview with Clague here)

Gershwin’s music is full of hooks – it’s as if he couldn’t really write development noise (to borrow John White’s handy phrase) and was compelled to fill his scores with memorable themes every time he sat at his desk. Messiaen’s was a master of relentless tunefulness who could also swamp his manuscript paper with gorgeously resonant development. The BBCSO, augmented by Cynthia Millar’s well-amplified ondes martenot (a kind of valve synthesizer), played the big gestures of Turangalîla Symphony with lusty glee, while Angela Hewitt tackled the monster piano part as if it were a concerto. A huge pleasure of last night’s performance was the committed push and pull between the glittering splinters of Hewitt’s piano and the squelchy portamentos of Millar’s ondes.

Miles Davis once told Wayne Shorter that you shouldn’t wear your heart on your sleeve (LINK). Messiaen (1908-92), in this extraordinary paean to earthly, spiritual and erotic love, argued the opposite. And it’s not so much a sleeve-sized heart as a shimmering, neon, heart-shaped holographic apparition that promises to fill the Albert Hall. Messiaen, you feel, loves everything there is to love, and he’s going to tell you all about it.

The ten masterful movements of the Turangalîla Symphony were completed in 1948 and premiered (by Leonard Bernstein) in 1949, the same year that Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ band was plotting the future of jazz, with Gil Evans in the engine room. Turangalîla, though once considered uncool by the contemporary music establishment, laid down similarly deep foundations for the sound of postwar music, with its focus on timbre, gorgeous, mysterious, complex sound textures that fill the auditorium (or your hi-fi) and linger in your minds as much as the tunes.

It is difficult (and unnecessary) to separate Messiaen’s tunes from their orchestration. Big themes – labelled ‘statue’ and ‘flower’ – are established from the first movement; they return throughout the symphony’s ten movements (including three ‘Turangalîlas’) like old friends. New themes and variations tumble from Messiaen’s pen like seeds from a Dandelion clock.

In the fourth movement (‘Chant d’amour’) there is an Ives-ish contrapuntal section, like two competing bands, as one tune creates a swirling, hallucinatory heat haze around the hocketing second subject. Millar’s ondes adds a perverse sourness to the rapturous love theme.

The snappy ‘comedy’ theme of the fifth movement is reminiscent of Gershwin – Messiaen can’t help writing hooks, even when he is pushing postwar composition as far as his febrile imagination can take him. The movement closes with a piano solo over percussion that leads deliriously into a massive ‘false finale’. You feel like cheering, but Messiaen is only half way through. By the eighth movement, with its bonkers, over-the-top tutti, piling argumentative piano onto schmaltz and all-out ‘carnal passion’ (to paraphrase Messiaen), the audience is on another plane of consciousness. Even a cerebral interlude, like the contrapuntal glassiness and intellectual games of ‘Turangalîla 3’, seems fit to burst into tears by the time it reaches its thrilling climax.

Most of the symphony’s themes, both literal and metaphorical, reappear for the tenth movement: bouncing, silly, emotional, anguished, ecstatic by turn or simultaneously. This genuine finale doesn’t disappoint. Juicy, astringent harmonies are dragged out to tantalising dimensions. At times Messiaen seems almost to subvert the panoramic virtuosity of his scoring, partially obscuring his orchestral timbres with the synthetic sweetness of the tremulous ondes.

Does any of this matter to jazz aficionados, or a jazz site like London Jazz? I believe it does, for reasons both musical and personal: my introduction to Messiaen’s music was via jazz composer Mike Gibbs, who always points out his musical debt to the French maestro. The ambitious sound and emotional bravery of Messiaen’s mash-ups have pervaded jazz composition through Gibbs and his Berklee colleagues and pupils such as Gary Burton and Bill Frisell. Through Gibbs’s commercial work, that influence entered the recordings of Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Jaco Pastorius and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

You can hear echoes of Messiaen in Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra, possibly in Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue and many more fiercely individual jazz composers. I thought I heard traces of ‘Garden of the Sleep of Love’, the sixth movement of the Turangalîla, in The Time Flowers by Neil Ardley and Keith Winter, which I reviewed for this site [here].

Messiaen was not a jazz composer, nor was Gershwin, but these works, and their contemporary interpretation, are vital to anyone seeking big, transcendent musical experiences, heart on sleeve or otherwise. Thanks to the BBC, you can hear it on (or download it from) the iPlayer any time in the next four weeks (LINK).

Categories: Live reviews

1 reply »

  1. This was definitely an inspired pairing – on the surface, who would have thought these two would sit so well together? But they did! The Turangalîla Symphony was something of a wayward and unwittingly, close cousin to American in Paris – the former an extension of the latter in many ways, 20 years apart. It really worked.
    Great that you were on the spot to document the concert for LJN.

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