Well-deserved acclaim for Thomas Kelly, Imsu Choi, Jac van Steen and the RCM SO

Terrific performance of Messiaen’s paean to love, joy and the flow of time, featuring a former CC Music Section laureate

Thomas Kelly, piano, Imsu Choi, ondes martenot, Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra / Jac van Steen – Royal Festival Hall, May 1, 2024

“A Symphony must be like the world,” declared Mahler, reportedly, to Sibelius at their one meeting in 1907: “it must contain everything!”. Mahler no doubt had his own works in mind, not least the enormous Eighth completed that same year, but if ever there were a piece to which that statement applied it is the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen (born—curiously—in 1908). A 75-minute paean to love in all its manifestations as well as joy and the flow of time, its ten substantial movements embracing references from Mexican monumental statuary to Indian tâlas, all scored for a large orchestra with a huge percussion section (14 players in this performance), piano and ondes martenot soloists, Turangalîla is a daunting challenge for any professional orchestra. The young players of the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra rendered it with enthusiasm and, more crucially, a precision of ensemble and intonation that would be the envy of any of their peers.

More to the point, this was a performance of remarkable clarity, a tribute to the performers’ collective control as well as conductor Jac van Steen’s clear-eyed vision of the whole piece. Time and again, sonorities and instrumental textures emerged that often pass unnoticed in the phantasmagorical welter of Messiaen’s orchestration. One could distinguish more clearly than is often the case between the different diffuseurs of the ondes, particularly the Palme, with its twelve tuned resonating strings. Imsu Choi’s playing was subtle and nuanced, a little too much so in the earlier movements, arguably, when the ondes’ tone did not always quite swoop and shimmer in the many tuttis as one might expect. In the solos, Choi always judged it very nicely, and in the latter stages—not least the enchanting Jardin du sommeil d’amour and the eighth movement, Developpement d’amour—she had adjusted well-nigh perfectly.

Facing her across the other side of the podium, was the 2022 Critics’ Circle Pianist laureate, Thomas Kelly. The piano part is chordal, muscular, almost Lisztian in its virtuosic sweep; in many respects the ‘masculine’ twin of the more ‘feminine’ ondes. Kelly showed total command at the keyboard, dominating proceedings when required, reining back when he needed to. Most telling, perhaps, was the cadenza opening the seventh movement, Turangalîla 2, with its evocation of birdsong; Kelly’s rendition was bold and strong, not unlike Yuja Wang’s for Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, but steelier than Joanna MacGregor’s flittering account in the National Youth Orchestra’s Proms 2012 performance under Petrenko (both are available in YouTube). Another striking aspect of his performance was as the leader of the tuned percussion sub-section, with the celesta, glockenspiel and vibraphone ranged behind him at the front of the stage (the tubular bells were, wisely, at the back of the orchestra with the untuned percussion). This was the Orchestra’s event, however, and—directed with firm but open control by van Steen—every section responded with finely articulated playing, near-flawless ensemble, and a sense of occasion that was a delight to hear, echoed in the cheers and acclaim from the appreciative audience. Bravo, indeed!

Guy Rickards

Hon Sec, Music Section