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Piers Lane – piano
Cynthia Millar – ondes Martenot
Wayne Marshall – organ
Yan Pascal Tortelier
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 25 May 2001

At last…I've done it! Last week, on a hurried business trip, I managed to leave home without taking breakfast and, after a particularly gruelling journey into town, started to feel those unpleasant ravages known as hunger pains. On passing McDonald's, however, I guiltily sneaked in – looking around first to make sure that there was no-one around who knew me – and ordered a sausage and egg muffin, which was gobbled down quickly as I too-nonchalantly continued up the Euston Road. When you're hungry most things will taste good, and I have to admit to enjoying the first mouthful even if the remainder, which gradually became less flavoursome, served only to fill the, by that time, cavernous void in my stomach. Thank God, however, that after an interval of a couple of hours, I managed to eat in a slightly more salubrious French restaurant – not quite four stars, but getting there – where the meal was more to my satisfaction and taste, even if the way it was served left something to be desired.

Now you might be wondering what the analogy of eating is all about, but the same feelings were engendered in last night's performances of Poulenc's Organ Concerto and Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. The Poulenc was, without doubt, an auditory version of that mega-saussi-muffin breakfast of three days earlier: it was full of spice, which, as it progressed, became less palatable and more of an assault on the senses. Bon goût disappeared in a mouthful and we were left with little other than a nasty taste. Wayne Marshall's performance was mainly the reason for this, since it was simply an awful and technically-inept interpretation, the result of a series of poor choices. Registration was inadequate, with little attempt made to follow the exquisite scheme devised at Poulenc's behest by Maurice Duruflé; detaché chords and all manner of staccatos, exaggerated speeds, altered rhythms and a few heart-stopping moments of indecision all crept into an eccentric, driven interpretation under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier. Although the string ensemble was better, it was detracted from by an arm-flailing assault on the organ in which Marshall's nodding head and precocious mannerisms served to create a feigned attempt at virtuosity in a performance that fell vastly short of mark. There were no luxurious harmonies, no sobbing, quiet, reflective passages; there was neither the sense of majesty nor affectation that is quintessential to Poulenc's music. A lacklustre event in all respects.

I was only too pleased, however, that the cuisine that came after the interval was more to everybody's taste and liking. It wasn't perfect and came far short of the Ritz, but its flavour was evocative and its aroma, at times, quite exotic. Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony is a Mont Blanc work that, in the space of its ten movements, explores a theme that one would rarely associate with this most religiously devout of composers. Its play on the ideas love, rapture and sensuality through a combination and juxtaposition of masculine and feminine themes, is a display that is tantamount to little other than blatant sexuality. And the performance gave us more than a taste of that, even if, in suffering from some slightly exaggerated speeds and, at times, sloppy playing, the sensuality of the lover became transformed to the fumblings of the adolescent novice. Pianist Piers Lane, in his first appearance in a Turangalîla, produced a seemingly cautious and underplayed interpretation, but an overtly sensitive approach to the quieter passages, with beautifully crafted phrasing, made a welcome change from the usual charged, harsh affairs that have accompanied many of the recent performances I have attended. Ondist Cynthia Millar's addition to those same passages was ravishing and her performance was quite true to Messiaen's colour scheme. However, at times, the ondes was simply too quiet, something that I am not inclined to blame on Millar, since I have seen her perform this part too many times to question her judgement. Indeed, I am obliged to wonder if the decision to underplay her role was conscious on the part of the conductor and producer: granted, to today's hi-tech musical establishment the ondes' prominence might seem to be something of an embarrassment, but it is a unique sound that Messiaen thoroughly relished and is as integral to the texture of the symphony as any other instrument.

The orchestra played with an evident sense of occasion, even if, in some of the more rhythmic passages, such as the central section of Turangalîla II, the ensemble became both unsteady and erratic. Likewise the brass, evidently relishing their high profile and sense of the virtuose, overstepped the boundaries of good taste. But it was an energised performance, and the Philharmonic's ecstasy was clearly felt by an equally enthusiastic audience, despite a couple of rather embarrassing foot-stamping tantrums on the part of the conductor during the course of the event. The ground the BBC Philharmonic lost with its recent quirky release of Turangalîla on Chandos was certainly recaptured here.

Ian le Prévost  

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