Messiaen described his ten-movement Turangalîla Symphonie (1947-1949) as a song of love, a hymn to joy. Yet a bitter history informs the piece. Fierce irony shapes and drives a startling barrage of traditional and exotic instruments, creating images in the manner of medieval carnival with its mockery of prevailing social orders where comic forms took new and often sinister meanings. In this charged performance with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Juanjo Mena captures the agitation in the work, even catching a sardonic gleam in the composer’s eye.
At times, Turangalîla weaves covertly through aggressive forces manoeuvring for narrative dominance. At others it is barefaced, springing from memories of unimaginable horrors the composer endured in a German concentration camp a few years earlier. Mena’s vision of this music is sharp; familiar emotional territory for a conductor born in Vitoria, in northern Spain’s fiercely independent Basque country.
With his team of Nordic musicians, he unleashes a phantasmagoric cacophony of jeering whistles, wails and screams. British pianist Steven Osborne is ferociously focused as a major and constant solo voice threading through the drama of contrasting cycles, by turns frenzied and gentle. It is relieved by plaintive, otherworldly cries of anguished love from the ondes martenot, a precursor to the synthesiser, sensitively played by Cynthia Millar.
Mena brings intense musical insight to this powerful yet bewildering symphony, a vibrant musical fantasy where a dash of pop rhythm (Gershwin comes to mind) mixes with flashes of West Side Story. Bernstein himself conducted the 1949 premiere with the Boston Symphony. It began a fascination with the work that epitomises the complexities and conflicts inherent in romantic love.