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Bath International Music Festival (1) Messiaen: Natalie Clein and Friends: Natalie Clein (cello), Chen Halevi (clarinet), Charles Owen (piano), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Assembly Rooms, Bath, 21.05.2006 (GPu)

This was the first of a series of lunchtime concerts, as part of the Bath International Music Festival, under the direction of its new Musical Director, Joanna MacGregor, whose programme is as adventurous and eclectic as one might have expected from her.

Sitting in the stuccoed and chandeliered elegance of the Georgian Assembly Rooms, listening to polite chatter, as we awaited the beginning of the performance, it was hard not to think of the contrast with the circumstances of the work’s first performance. Rebecca Rischin’s fascinating book For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2003) debunks some of the myths of the first performance – the three stringed cello, for example – but makes clear how extraordinary the circumstances were on a bitterly cold January 15th 1941 in the barracks of the prisoner of war camp at Görlitz where Messiaen and his three fellow performers – Jean Le Boulaire (violin), Henri Akoka (clarinet) and Etienne Pasquier (cello) – were all prisoners. With snow blowing in every time a door was opened, with a large audience that included German officers and wounded prisoners carried in on stretchers, with Messiaen at an upright piano on which some of the keys were unusable, the first performance was given. In a very real sense the ‘meaning’ of that first performance can never be recreated, but the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps is, nevertheless, a work that transcends the  remarkable circumstances of its creation and premiere. In the very different surroundings of neo-classical Bath, the work still made its affirmation of important values, even if a Steinway had replaced the dodgy upright.

Being written for so unusual a combination of instruments, the Quatuor escapes the problem that some other chamber works sometimes encounter. Where a string quartet or a piano trio may play certain pieces in its repertoire so often that there is a risk of over-familiarity or complacency, performances of this work have to be minted afresh each time, usually with an ad hoc group of performers. That means that there is often a certain element of flying-by-the-seat-of-the pants to some of the ensemble work. That was the case here – the work didn’t feel over-rehearsed – and the performance was all the better for it. This was ‘live’ music-making with a vengeance.

Billed as ‘Natalie Clein and Friends’ this ensemble brought together four young musicians who certainly played as though they were loving the experience of playing together, especially in a work to which they were so obviously committed. They gave an intense performance, passionately expressive and characterised by the quality of the way each musician listened to his/her fellows.

Though Clein was the ‘leader’ of the group, it is the pianist who perhaps has to do most to hold together a performance of the Quatuor, and Charles Owen did so quite admirably. Chen Halevi gave a memorable performance of the ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, sweeping up and down the whole range of the instrument with immense technical assurance and considerable poetic insight. In the ‘Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus’, Natalie Clein, well supported by Charles Owen’s modal accompaniment, entirely fulfilled Messiaen’s marking (‘Infinitely slow, ecstatic’) in the dark-toned yearning of her playing. In the last and balancing movement, ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’, the young Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (in a natty pair of trainers) played with rhapsodic concentration. In the ‘Intermède’ and the ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ the interplay between the members of the quartet was imbued with passionate attentiveness, the unison passages making a powerful impact.

There was a contemplative quality to much of the playing; tempos were very slow in places and there was no fear of silences – some of which were held longer than usual.The absolute involvement of all four performers, their evident respect for one another, became part of the work’s meaning and certainly communicated themselves to a large and spellbound audience.

If later concerts are as good as this – and as well attended and received – Joanna MacGregor will surely be delighted, and the patrons of the festival have much to look forward to.



Glyn Pursglove




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)