Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra join British pianist Matthew Schellhorn on this recording of some of Messiaen’s most attractive chamber music. The featured work is the Quatuor pour le fin du Temps, which is recognized as one of the landmarks of twentieth century music, and which receives a sublime performance here. Perhaps the fact that spectacular recordings of the work are growing more and more common has to do with the fact that a new generation of performers has grown up with this music as classic core repertoire and didn’t have to "learn" its idiom, because it was in their blood. In any case, these performers, pianist Schellhorn, violinist James Clark, cellist David Cohen, and clarinetist Barnaby Robson, deliver a heart-stoppingly beautiful performance. Technically, they are beyond reproach, but they also play with exquisitely subtle nuance of tempo, dynamics, and phrasing. The performance is warmly glowing, both in its tone colors and the performers’ interpretive choices. The first movement has rarely sounded so much like actual birdsong, not simply musicians playing the transcription of the birdsong. The instrumental blend is gorgeous, thanks in part, no doubt, to excellent engineering; the all-unison Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes, is played with a rare unanimity; it’s possible to hear it as the sound of a single multi-colored instrument. In the last movement (which can be heartstopping – in a bad way – because it’s so dauntingly difficult, and the violin’s long sustained, stratospheric final note can veer so easily out of tune and tarnish an otherwise fine performance), Clark plays with complete assurance and does in fact create and maintain the sense of timeless serenity the composer aimed for; when that final note does arrive with piercing purity, the effect is overwhelming.
The ensemble brings the same level of finesse and expressiveness to the other works, the very early Fantasie for piano and violin, the very late Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes, Le merle noir, and the world-premiere recording of the Debussian Morceau de lecture à vue (Sight-reading Piece), which Messiaen wrote as an exam piece for piano students. Signum’s sound is beautifully engineered; natural and clean, with an excellent sense of presence. This recording would be an ideal introduction to Messiaen for anyone not familiar with his work, and listeners who love Quatuor pour le fin du Temps owe it to themselves to hear this stellar version.
Admirers of Messiaen’s music will simply have to have this record, for it contains the world premiere recording of a solo piano piece, Morceau de lecture á vue composed in 1934 for the sight-reading examination at the École Normal de Musique. In the nature of things, this adds nothing to our knowledge of the composer and his work, but for completeness’ sake it deserves a place in the composer’s discography.
Quite apart from the unique nature of this piece on disc, the record merits a strong recommendation for the performances of the other, more well-known music here. The result is an excellent issue, dominated as it is by the masterly Quartet for the end of time which still, after seventy years, packs a considerable punch in terms of emotional expression – especially in such a fine performance as it undoubtedly receives in this instance.
The nature of this performance is to make more accessible the composer’s utterly original lay-out: the eight movements undoubtedly are connected and threaded both melodically and emotionally (if not liturgically), but can often appear in live performance relatively unconnected (as though any order would be acceptable); the success of this performance is that the eight movements are given with the implication that they make four groups of two – with each group slightly longer than its predecessor, so that the sense of culmination in the final supplication to Christ’s immortality is as powerful and as overwhelming as it should be. The result is, musically and emotionally, very successful indeed.
The relatively early Fantasie for violin and piano (1933) seems to be more often heard in recital these days than used to be the case, and it remains an impressive work which I have often felt would make an excellent introduction to this composer’s output for those who might tend to fight shy of the essentially pietistic nature of some of his later creations. It receives an equally assured and confident reading here from James Clark and Matthew Schellhorn, a Messiaen authority and pupil of Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, who plays admirably throughout. Le merle noir was one of the first pieces by Messiaen to appear on disc in the UK, and its extraordinarily original inspiration retains its freshness and validity in this account from Kenneth Smith. The little piece for piano quintet – just three minutes long – is nothing much to write home about, but in terms of discographical completeness is none the less welcome.
Roger Nichols provides most informative booklet notes, and the recording quality is of a consistently high modern standard. All in all, this is a highly recommendable CD, the more so for including a world premiere recording.
French contemporary Messiaen’s music breaks through the veil of Milhaud’s reserve, restlessly exploring the extremes of ecstasy and meditation, apocalypse and tranquillity. The Fantaisie for violin and piano, discovered only two years ago, superbly demonstrates Messiaen’s ability to compose romantically and heroically. Although an early work, it already has the intense radiance of Messiaen’s spirituality. Both the heroic and the spiritual qualities are captured by the performers, the utterly beautiful and intensely yearning violin sound earning this recording a plenary indulgence for fast-track admission to a Catholic heaven.
Utterly expressive and beautiful playing is also never lacking in the Quartet for the End of Time. A considerably challenging piece in the chamber music repertoire, this recording captures something of the danger and excitement of a live performance. Composed by Messiaen under the most extreme war-time conditions, the premiere in 1941 in a prison must have had its fair share of angst in the performers’ hands, as much as this work is an expression of Messiaen’s reassuring Catholic faith. Has the Quartet for the End of Time already attained the status of one of those works which Adorno thought of as alienated masterpieces? Composed by a prisoner of war in a German camp, and its biblical message of apocalypse first aired to 400 prisoners, is it one of those extramusical icons that have become immune from criticism? Schellhorn’s deep involvement with Messiaens’s music and an appreciation of his Catholicism make this a first-rate recording through which to answer such questions.
One of the benefits of this Messiaen centenary year is the upsurge in recordings of the composer’s works. Playing this music is as satisfying as it is to listen to. It’s so rich that there are always new angles to explore. You learn something new every time.
Easily the best known piece on this recording is the Quartet for the End of Time. It is now almost "basic repertoire" which everyone should be familiar with. Part of its cachet stems from the fact it was written in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia, in harsh conditions. This story has been told so often and so well that it’s pointless telling it again, except for the fact that this recording kept making me think about that first performance in snowbound Gärlitz. There are more spectacular versions, but this one I like because it has the sincerity and commitment Messiaen and his companions must have called upon. "Faith is simple", Messiaen used to say. Purity is often harder to achieve than elaborate artifice. Listening to Matthew Schellhorn and the soloists from the Philharmonia made me feel close to the spirit of "simple" faith that must have shone through the spartan conditions in which it was first played.
The first section represents the beginning of time, depicting the first birds waking to greet the dawn. Barnaby Robson’s clarinet catches the light transparency. This section, is, after all, called the "Liturgy of Crystal". Schellhorn’s savage ostinatos mark the dark power of nature "Messiaen’s characteristic "canyons and mountains" are symbols of the grandeur of creation, yet are also symbols of time, moving imperceptibly but inexorably towards a final destination. From this rises the violin part, pure, followed by the famous clarinet solo. Robson does the long, searing legato well. It’s like a siren, for we are being warned that something is about to happen. The clarinet’s long lines also remind us that time stretches endlessly, and moves purposefully forward. If the recording process captures some of Robson’s breathing that’s no disadvantage, for it reminds us he’s human. At the first performance in prison camp, Messiaen and his quartet wore wooden clogs which added "extra percussion" as they moved.
This sense of slowly unfolding time marks the equally famous cello solo, The legato here is so extended that the bow seems to hover almost without movement. Here, David Cohen judged it well. Then, like a scherzo, the lively fourth section marks a change of mood "I liked the three cello thrusts near the end, like a village band. This makes the next quiet movement so moving. This is classic Messiaen "contemplative rapture", the violin soaring upwards, marked by the steady pulse of the piano. The seventh section, Danse de la fureur is a favourite with many listeners because it’s easy to follow, the instruments playing similar cadences. But it’s not as simple as some assume: Messiaen is breaking time up into whizzing blocks of sound, up and down the scale, finally exploding in the massive final theme which marks the sounding of the Seven Trumpets that herald the End of Time. With four basic instruments, Messiaen is depicting massive, apocalyptic forces.
Because of the circumstances in which this piece was written, it’s sometimes claimed that performances should be gloomily portentous. Yet in 1941, the final Holocaust and Hiroshima had not happened. In any case the Bible does not depict the End of Time as disaster, but a kind of liberation. Worldly sufferings don’t last. So the final two sections express sublime reverence, contemplating Immortality. At last the violin has its moment of glory, and James Clark revels, supported by the piano, clarinet and cello.
Messiaen fans will seek this recording out for the relative rarities it contains. Fantaisie, for violin and piano, was not published until 2007 when it was finally unearthed from the mass of material the composer left behind. It was written for Messiaen’s first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos, with whom he often performed. Already, the composer’s adamant, dominant chords appear, contrasted with the freer sensuality of the violin. Schellhorn is heard to very good effect here, reminding one how the piece resembles the mighty organ version of L’ascension, written in the same period. It would be interesting to hear the piano, organ and full orchestral works together.
Also relatively unknown is Le Merle noir (The blackbird) written as an exam piece for students at the Conservatoire. The flautist, Kenneth Smith, is put through the paces, displaying various techniques as the music evolves. Morceau de lecture á vue is a morsel indeed, a sight-reading piece written to test students, rather than as "art". Yet these morsels count, as Messiaen was a brilliant and extremely unusual teacher, whose methods have yet to be thoroughly appreciated.
In a recent review Bob Briggs stated that “modern” music could still clear a concert hall these days and whilst the music played at this concert in Bristol with such verve and aplomb is mid C20th, there are undoubtedly many people who may regard Bartòk and Messiaen as too modern for their tastes. Fortunately, this was not the case for this very well supported chamber concert in St George’s Hall and, in talking to regular concert goers, I discovered that the turn-out was not unusual. The venue is excellent; a converted church with superb acoustics where the staff are friendly and where my son and I enjoyed an excellent meal before the concert in the former crypt along with many others from the audience.
The concert, mainly of music by Messiaen, was one of several that Matthew Schellhorn and Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra have done recently to coincide with the recent release of Quatuor pour la fin du Temps and other pieces including a world premiere recording on SIGNUM SIGCD126. Matthew studied with Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen who has described him as “an excellent pianist and exponent” and said of his performances that they were “wonderful in every detail, everything as Messiaen wanted.” There was no question that this was again the case, for both Matthew and his three Philharmonia colleagues on this occasion. Bartòk’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano began the concert and I found it much more accessible than a lot of the composer’s other music; I know the quartets are highly regarded but I find them tough nuts to crack. This piece was composed for Benny Goodman, Joseph Szigeti and Bartòk himself and though it’s clearly written in a classical framework, the piece reminded me of Gershwin with its jazzy inspiration. The piece was conveyed very well by the trio and it is to be hoped that they will record it too.
Messiaen’s Préludes for piano were written in 1928–9 upon recommendation by the composer’s teacher, the great Paul Dukas (Messiaen was therefore the sorcerer’s apprentice!) and Matthew Schellhorn played three of them. The pieces do slightly outstay their welcome (as the French composer Georges Dandelot complained at the premiere in 1930) but it was good to hear them played so well; Schellhorn’s playing was limpid and colourful with superb technique and committed artistry.
The first half concluded with the rediscovered Fantasie for violin and piano from 1933 which I first heard last year with Elizabeth Cooney and Matthew Schellhorn. Here the violinist was James Clark and I was struck once again by the work’s Gallic melodiousness mixed with early modernism. The Fantasie is a continuous composition of 161 bars with two distinct themes, though the different sections also comply with the standard structure of exposition, development and recapitulation. The piece begins with a rhythmic theme for piano alone, which in fact anticipates the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” from the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps. The second theme is a melody (marked molto appassionato) sustained by a variegated piano accompaniment. I enjoyed the work enormously at this second hearing, thanks to another performance in which violin and piano delivered consummate excellence.
After enjoying a complimentary drink in the garden along with very cheerful audience members it was time for the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, the main work in the concert. Written whilst Messiaen was a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A, 70 miles east of Dresden, the first performance was in January 1941 and uses the combination of instrumentalists that Messiaen had available to him at the time The work is inspired by the Apocalypse of St John and felt very appropriate in this magnificent former church. The playing was simply inspired. In eight movements, only certain instruments play at times and as ever with Messiaen, birds appear in Abîme des oiseaux (III) brought to life with very effective playing by Barnaby Robson on clarinet. The fifth movement – “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” – seemed to become literally beyond time on the cello and piano. When the final chords faded there was a silence for half a minute before rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Like me, much of the audience had been overwhelmed by the music and such wonderful playing.