Review: Jaap van Zweden Returns to a Changed Philharmonic

“What have I missed?” you could imagine Jaap van Zweden thinking as he stood on the podium at David Geffen Hall and looked out at the audience on Friday evening. It’s been months since van Zweden, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, led this orchestra in a furious burst of activity as it opened the renovated Geffen Hall.

In the meantime, the world has swiftly turned: Last month, the orchestra announced that Gustavo Dudamel, the superstar maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, would succeed van Zweden, who is departing after next season. The prospect of a Dudamel era — a throwback to the heady, celebrity-fueled, jet-set days of Leonard Bernstein — immediately overshadowed van Zweden’s comparatively modest tenure.

Modesty was set aside on Friday, though, for Messiaen’s immense, very loud “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” which van Zweden is ambitiously following next week with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” for a brief residency the orchestra is calling “Spirit.”

The spiritual quality couldn’t be more obvious in the austere severity of the “St. Matthew Passion.” It’s a little harder to discern in the hulking, gaudy “Turangalîla,” a 10-part, 80-minute paean to an erotic ecstasy that spills over into the realm of the cosmic.

To keep things on a cosmic scale, Messiaen musters a solo piano part of concerto-level difficulty and variety. And the woozy, slippery wail of the theremin-like ondes martenot. And a glockenspiel, and a celesta. And a forest of percussion instruments, including shimmering tam-tam; curt wood blocks; and drums, both crisp and booming.

Written in the aftermath of World War II, during which Messiaen spent time as a prisoner of war, the intricately conceived “Turangalîla” comes across as an explosion of long-simmering tensions: aggression and relief, energy and romantic longing, a celebration so huge it seems to encompass all the beauty and ominousness of nature, the delicacy and the granitic weight.

The legacy of Stravinsky’s primal, euphorically muscular “Rite of Spring” is here, but billowing with the perfume of the French tradition of Ravel and blazing with the Technicolor brassiness of Broadway and Hollywood, returning to a few motifs — like a grim fanfare and a questioning four-note murmur — again and again.

The quieter parts were the most memorable on Friday. The oscillating buzz of piano and celesta in the “Chant d’Amour II” section seemed to cast a blur over a lush melody in the violins. In “Turangalîla II,” a solo cello had the burnished strength of a horn. There was beautifully mellow playing in the winds throughout the “Jardin du Sommeil d’Amour,” the longest section, with the piano gently frisking, like a dancer in the moonlight on a foggy summer night.

With van Zweden conducting, the score was forceful but slightly smudged, the textures both less lucid and less blooming than I’ve heard. I was aware, as I hadn’t been since earlier days in the renovated hall, of a hard, blaring quality to the orchestra’s sound in this space, a sense of being not surrounded, but almost assaulted.

This performance felt heavier than some. But the work’s trippy grandeur and over-the-top virtuosity come through no matter what. And van Zweden’s build from misty mystery to density in the “Turangalîla I” section was persuasive, as was that from spare, forbidding march to ferocious dance in “Turangalîla III.”

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, experienced at the daunting solo piano part, was both crisply powerful and self-effacingly suave. Cynthia Millar was a subtle presence at the ondes martenot — to the point that the instrument could have been more assertively amplified. We get to hear this retro-sounding relic of early electronica so rarely: Let it rip.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Sunday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

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