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Prom 64: Berlin Phil / Turangalila / Rattle

September 3, 2008

Prom 64: Turangalila, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Messiaen was one composer which was flagged up pretty early on in my Proms experience this year. In truth, I probably made a bee-line for all of the concerts in which his works featured heavily because I knew it was an easy hit. Pick out the ones you’re least comfortable with and they’re guaranteed to be thought-provoking. I’m always up for being challenged. I’m not generally someone who will only listen to the stuff he knows. I do rather like being taken out of my comfort zone .. for the most part.

I wasn’t anxious about attending tonight’s concert. My only thought had been whether or not I’d be able to stand for the 78 minutes the Turangalila Symphony was supposed to last for. As it was I didn’t stand for the entiriety preferring instead to sit for three movements somewhere in the middle. Sitting is OK, by the way. It’s allowed.

The man stood next to me summed everything I was feeling up when he licked his lips and cracked his knuckles shortly after Sir Simon Rattle stepped up on to his podium. This was a major work and perhaps one not for the faint-hearted. At least, that’s what I assumed to begin with. The man beside me was obviously getting himself psyched-up for the ocassion. I had to admire that.

Of course I was wrong. There was nothing to get psyched up for. Nearly every concert I’ve initially assumed would be heavy weather hasn’t been. The one’s I’ve not given a second thought too have, conversely, thrown unexpected spanners in the works. The Turangalila however was nothing short of pure indulgence.

There are discernible melodies. There are sections you’ll come away from remembering even if you can’t initially whistle them. What’s important – at least to me – is how Messiaen paints and enormous picture orchestrating his ideas with such deft precision that I wonder why we bother listening to any composer in existence before him.

I hadn’t anticipated to what extent it would be such a physical experience either. Sure, you can listen to it and possibly enjoy it on CD, but there’s nothing better than hearing the strange yet reassuring textures Messiaen conjurs up say by combining piccolo trumpet with unison strings wtih the ocassional ondnes martinot thrown in with an ocassional sprinkling of triangle for good measure. There are moments which straddle both the grotesque and the beautiful all at the same time, moments when the orchestra I saw on stage played seemingly disparate melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas and yet executed it in such a way that I never thought to question it.

Tonight was an event. If you were listening on the radio you may not have got that although I’d wager the cheers at the end might possibly have given an indication. For those of us there – and really, there wasn’t much room for anyone else – we all rose to the ocassion. It was the Berlin Phil playing after all. It’s not often you get a chance to stand this close to the first violins of the Berlin Phil and marvel at their cool exterior and equally cool yet accomplished dexterity and musicality.

To watch the much-touted finest orchestra in the world conductor by Rattle only served to reinforce something in my mind I could now finally say that after years of assuming that Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony was impenetrable rubbish, it was Rattle conducting the Berlin Phil who convinced me otherwise is really quite a special thing, if a little pretentious. (Give me a wide berth at parties just in case I use that line, won’t you?)

But there was one other thing which occurred this evening which will make the performance memorable. Part way through the interval, intent on writing something inspired by the first half of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Prelude and Liebestod that I ended up being unexpectedly flattered by someone sat behind me.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I’m sorry to interrupt but you’re writing. Do you write for anyone in particular?”

I hesitated at first before getting a grip. “I write a blog,” I replied beaming.

“Oh, really? What’s it called?”

“The Thoroughly Good Blog.”

“Good name,” he smiled back at me.

“Isn’t it.”

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