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SCRUTINY | TSO Takes A Walk On The Wild Side With Messiaen’s Turangalîla

By Arthur Kaptainis on May 5, 2023

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Messiaen: Turangalîla-symphonie. Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. Nathalie Forget, ondes Martenot. Roy Thomson Hall, May 4, 2023. Repeats May 5; Tickets here.

The hockey game? A more likely explanation for the modest turnout Thursday night in Roy Thomson Hall was a nagging suspicion on the part of Toronto Symphony Orchestra followers that Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie — for all its renommée as a mid-20th-century masterpiece — makes certain demands.

There might be a grain of truth to this, but the French composer’s 10-movement, 75-minute paean to ecstatic and universal love rewards patient listening when it is prepared as thoroughly as it was under Gustavo Gimeno.

This performance and the repeat Friday will form the basis of a recording on the Harmonia Mundi label meant to celebrate the centennial of the orchestra and pay homage to the landmark TSO version led by Seiji Ozawa in 1967.

The score is a study in exuberant contrasts between the brash and the tender, the mild and the wild. It was clear in the opening movement, with its monumental brass figures, that the fortissimo end would be well attended to and expanded by a healthy range of sonorities. One could not have asked for a more boisterous Joie du sang des étoiles and the rhythms of the finale invoked something like an avant-garde hootenanny.

Messiaen Turangalîla Gustavo Gimeno Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Messiaen Turangalîla Gustavo Gimeno Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Quiet interludes were no less convincing. The Jardin du sommeil d’amour — “Garden of Love’s Sleep” — sounds like a good place to be, and so it was, with its soft strings and delicate balance of winds, piano and the electronic keyboard instrument known as the ondes Martenot.

The last two instruments, which have solo prominence, were positioned at the front of the stage. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin was confident in the cadenzas and projected brilliantly in the high register. Nathalie Forget, more embedded in the fabric, was always sensitive to phrasing and curvature.

Gimeno was on top of it all. As a former percussionist himself, the conductor did little to restrain the 10 stick-wielders on duty. Of course, Messiaen himself was not exactly economical with his distribution of cymbal crashes. And a little wood block, in my opinion, goes a long way.

If there are thought to be any imbalances, the recording engineers can probably attend to them. We can surely predict good digital results overall. The audience was asked to be quiet between movements and complied. The final ovation was tremendous.

The Friday repeat starts at 7:30. Be on time. There is no intermission.


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Arthur Kaptainis
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