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TSO on stage during rehearsal

Recording History

The TSO performs and captures Turangalîla-Symphonie
April 21, 2023

When you think of the words “love” and “joy”, what comes to mind? Do you picture a love that is “fatal, irresistible, transcending everything, suppressing everything outside itself”? How about a joy that is “superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited”? 

These are the terms that 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen used to describe his “love song” and “hymn to joy”, Turangalîla-Symphonie. And as dramatic as the composer’s definitions are, so too is his epic, unparalleled musical creation—which the Orchestra will perform and record under the leadership of Music Director Gusavo Gimeno on May 4 and 5. Coinciding with our ongoing Centennial Celebration, the recording, on the Harmonia Mundi label, will mark Gustavo’s first with the TSO.

“When you think of the biggest compositions of the 20th century, this is certainly among them,” he says. “Immense and grandiose but, at the same time, very intimate, it is a whole world in itself. It’s spectacular.”

The Piece

Turangalîla came to life between 1946 and 1948. Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian-born conductor who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim for a quarter century, was a champion of new music, and he commissioned Messiaen to write a work of no defined length or instrumentation. The result was an 80-minute, ten-movement magnum opus that Koussevitzky is said to have hailed as the most important piece of classical music written since Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Clearly, he felt his money was well spent.

Inspired by the Tristan myth (via Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), Messiaen explained the title’s Sanskrit origins as follows: turanga, meaning “time that runs, like a galloping horse” and “that flows, like sand in an hourglass”; lîla, meaning the “divine action on the cosmos, the play of creation and destruction, and also the spiritual-physical union of love.”

Considering how complex these concepts are, Gustavo notes that it’s fitting to convey them “with a massive composition that depicts the contrasting conditions of the human heart. There are really soft, slow-paced, beautifully evocative, sensual, and intimate sections, and there are movements of great rhythmic energy. The richness of dynamics, colours, and emotions is extreme and even, at times, overwhelming.”

“The orchestra is likewise immense,” he continues, “and all the musicians are active, but there is a particular dynamism required of the many percussion and keyboard instruments, including the celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone, piano, and ondes Martenot.” Indeed, as Messiaen put it, “Keyboard instruments…form within the large orchestra a small orchestra.”

The Ondes Martenot

An early electronic instrument with a distinct and other-wordly character, the ondes Martenot consists of a small keyboard with a series of protruding vertical antennae, which are used to manipulate the sounds it emits. It also has a speaker, volume control, and other electronic components housed in a lower cabinet.

Messiaen claimed that the role of the instrument was vital to the work as a whole. “I have made extensive use of its metallic quality,” he wrote. “For each sound there is a corresponding metallic resonance from within the speaker, giving it a halo of harmonics. Strange, mysterious, unreal in their sweetness, or cruel, lacerating, terrifying in their strength, the metallic timbres are without doubt the most beautiful of the instrument.”

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many ondes Martenot players in the world, and fewer still who have performed Turangalîla—but Nathalie Forget is one, and we’re fortunate to have the highly accomplished French artist performing the piece with us. “The ondes is sensitive,” says Forget, who holds a master’s degree in musical philosophy with a focus on Messiaen, “it has many aspects: it can sound like a very old synthesizer, like a voice, like a string instrument, or like a keyboard. You could call it a chameleon, since you can take the colours of everything and also be yourself. It’s a very organic instrument. It’s electronic but so sensitive for every aspect of the sound.” 

The Solo Piano

The other heavily featured keyboard instrument is the piano. In fact, “the solo piano part is so important,” the composer notes, “demanding a virtuoso of such extraordinary powers, that one can say the Turangalîla-Symphonie is almost a piano concerto…. It adorns, varies, bejewels the orchestration with diverse figures.” 

The virtuoso we’ve enlisted for our performances is Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who The New York Times calls “a performer of near-superhuman technical prowess.” Not only has he performed with the world’s leading orchestras, but he’s also received seven JUNO Awards and 11 GRAMMY® nominations, and is Officer of the Order of Canada. Though Hamelin has played the solo piano part in Turangalîla numerous times and knows it well, this will be the first opportunity he’s had to record it.

The Preparation

When asked how he’s been readying himself for our upcoming performances, our Music Director had much to say: 

“For months, I’ve been immersed in Turangalîla-Symphonie. To properly prepare, I had to begin studying it well in advance. And when you engage with a particular piece for so long, it tends to take up residency in your head. It’s always there, somewhere.

“One of the most important approaches to performing this work is organization. Because there is so much activity and so many dynamics and so many people performing at the same time, it’s vital to find the right balance so the sounds aren’t fighting with each other, but are instead united, going in the same direction and creating a common atmosphere.

“When preparing for a recording, you are very aware of the fact that this is going to be permanent and there aren’t going to be multiple versions. Every single decision—whether musical, technical, or even about the way you want to record it—is present, every minute. The players in the Orchestra feel the same way, I know. From minute one, everyone knows this is a recording. And the way you approach it is with an extra layer of consciousness, and you demand more of yourself, your section, and your orchestra. I'm sure there will be a unique state of mind for everyone—automatically, that will help us to produce the best possible results.” 

The Historical Connections

Of the countless works of the orchestral repertoire that Gustavo could have chosen to record in our 100th year, “making the decision to record this piece was immediate,” he says. “It was more than just an intellectual choice. It came from my intuition, from my gut. And later on I learned that one of the most famous conductors of Messiaen’s music, who was highly praised by Messiaen himself, was Seiji Ozawa, and he recorded Turangalîla with the TSO in 1968.”

That recording is iconic, and partially responsible for putting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on the musical map. It was the first North American recording of the work, and it earned a GRAMMY®  nomination. The soloists were sisters Jeanne Loriod (ondes Martenot) and Yvonne Loriod (piano), who was Messiaen’s second wife. And the composer did indeed think very highly of Ozawa, calling him (in a book-length interview with French music critic Claude Samuel) “the greatest conductor I have known.” In fact, he was so impressed by Ozawa’s understanding of his music that he selected him to conduct the première of what would be his only opera, Saint François d'Assise.

Other historical connections are worth noting as well: The 1949 world première of Turangalîla was conducted by the legendary Leonard Bernstein and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernstein was the person who gave Seiji Ozawa his first North American job—as an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in its 1961/62 and 1964/65 seasons. And Ozawa would eventually go on to become the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973, remaining in the role for 29 years, surpassing Koussevitzky’s previous record.

The 21st-Century TSO

“We are in our 100th year and will soon see the beginning of a new century,” Gustavo explains. “This is a turning point where we look to our past and also our future, evaluating who we are and thinking about who we want to be. So it was appealing to us, and felt very natural, to revisit this 20th-century piece and 20th-century recording now as a 21st-century orchestra.”

Adds our Chief Executive Officer, Mark Williams, “Recordings are one of the most effective ways orchestras can contribute to their legacies. This highly anticipated recording is both historic and historical: It marks Gustavo’s first with the TSO, and it pays homage to our celebrated 1968 recording of the same piece under legendary Music Director Seiji Ozawa. By re-recording Messiaen’s spectacular creation, we’re entering into direct dialogue with our past, and I can’t wait to listen to both interpretations side by side.”

On the sleeve of the TSO’s previous recording of Turangalîla, adorned with a version of Robert Indiana’s most recognizable work of pop art, Love, there is a small note that reads: “This recording was made possible through a grant by the Centennial Commission to the Toronto Symphony on the occasion of the celebrations marking the Centennial of Canadian Confederation.” Just as our first recording of the work coincided with a centennial, so too will our second. History really does repeat itself.