Prom 38: Foulds’ Mantras & Messiaen’s Turangalîla

Prom 38: Foulds’ Mantras & Messiaen’s Turangalîla
BBC Philharmonic, Juanko Mena
Royal Albert Hall, 13 August 2015

In an inspired bit of programming, Messiaen’s enormous hymn to eroticism and sexual desire was coupled (so to speak) with a very rare performance of John Foulds’ Three Mantras, composed between 1919 and 1930 and all that survives of his monumental ‘Sanskrit opera’ Avatara.  

John Foulds (1880-1939) is something of a local lad for the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic. He played cello for the Halle aged 20, and later became known as a composer of light music. But behind this populist façade lay some fascinating musical ideas, well ahead of his time. Marriage to a leading authority on Indian music led to an interest in Indian mysticism and esoteric thought, very much in vogue at the time. After time in London and Paris, he moved to India, founding a symphony orchestra in Delhi. His Three Mantras were composed in Paris as preludes to the three acts of the opera Avatara. He destroyed all except these three pieces.

His was clearly a very individual musical voice and attempts at linking him to other composers or compositional trends are of little relevance. The first ‘Terrestrial’ Mantra is energetic and impulsive, in both senses of the word, with key moments for the excellent brass group. The gently mystical ‘Celestial’ Mantra features a wordless female chorus, used as a musical colour rather than carrying any particular thematic interest. The final ‘Cosmic’ Mantra is marked ‘inexorable’ and is a tour de force of orchestral colour, drive and volume, albeit (apparently strictly) based on a South Indian raga. An enormous momentum builds toward a climactic conclusion, prefaced by a ‘false-ending’ general pause that, by dint of careful control by conductor Juanko Mena, caught nobody in the Proms audience out. All three Mantras are based on small musical or rhythmic cells, creating an almost litany-like sense of power. This was a most impressive work, and the opportunity to hear it is an example of the Proms at their best. Juanko Mena kept the volume under reasonable control, making the tumultuous climaxes the more impressive.

Far more mainstream nowadays is Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, written in the post war era, it combines elements of Sanskrit, the Tristan and Isolde myth, and Messiaen’s obvious attraction to his new piano pupil (and, much later, his second wife) Yvonne Loriod, the inspiration for much of his subsequent piano music. Originally planned as a four-movement symphony, the work grew into the final ten-movement form with the addition firstly of three movements entitled Turangalîla (a title based on combining two Sanskrit words, becoming very difficult to translate in the process – Messiaen likened it to expressing a ‘love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death’), and then three further movements related to the theme of love. As with the Mantras, the brass section is key to the success of the work, but they are overshadowed by the large percussion group, on this occasion with 10 players. One visual reminder of their presence came in the final movement with four pairs of large rattles were raised aloft.

As with the Foulds Mantras, Juanko Mena kept control of the volume of the work, which can often be overdone. In a piece lasting about 80’, this is important. I also liked the fact that he paused after the 5th movement, quite correctly according to the structure of the piece in two sections of five movements each. This also made the serene and timeless 6th Jardin du sommeil d’amour movement (Garden of the Sleep of Love), with its evocative piano birdsong, the more telling after the enormous climax of the 5th movement. Messiaen noted that the Jardin du sommeil d’amour movement represents ‘the lovers outside time: let us not wake them’.

Valerie Hartmann-Claverie in Proms TurangalilaThe key soloists in the Turangalîla Symphony were Steven Osborne (piano) and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, playing the evocative electronic ondes martenot, although the seemingly directional speakers made it a little quite from my seat. The BBC Philharmonic were on sparkling form, and conductor Juanko Mena impressed throughout.

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