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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (1941) [50:15]
Thème et Variations for violin and piano (1932) [8:34]
Jonathan Cohler (clarinet); Ilya Kaler (violin); Andrew Mark (cello); Janice Weber (piano)
rec. 27-28 April 2002, Mechanics Hall, Worcester MA, USA.
ONGAKU RECORDS 024119 [58:55]


Experience Classicsonline

Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps is one of the composer’s most frequently recorded works, and Jonathan Cohler admits that “the decision to produce a new recording was not taken lightly” for this very reason. His highly informative and detailed booklet notes do however soon reveal this recording’s claimed USP, and part of its reason for taking up the challenge against some very stiff competition indeed. Having taken stock of the existing recordings of the piece, and comparing the results of these against Messiaen’s original score and his own writings on the work, Cohler and his musicians’ aim has been to restore those original intentions, and the status of Messiaen’s own commentaries on performing the piece.

Cohler writes at length on this subject, and gives clear and logical reasons for deviating from Messiaen’s own 1957 recording with the composer at the piano, the tempi of which seem too swift when compared with the score. Another of his references is that on from 1991 from EMI with the composer’s wife Yvonne Loriod. This latter version has by chance recently become available in a new coupling with André Previn’s LSO account of the Turangalila-Symphonie, and as a result I have it for direct comparison.

For a start, whatever the arguments, this is a fine recording and performance of the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps on any terms. The technical problems which in the past have lead musicians to speed up the tempi in the slowest movements of the piece have numerous reasons – breathing for the clarinettist, bowing for the violinist, the character of the piano at the pianist’s disposal and any number of other factors. More interesting is the deviation the composer’s own recording shows from the original score, with several movements coming in well short in terms of expected timings, and as a result being considered too quick. I don’t have this recording to hand, but taking what must be considered his last ‘thoughts’ on the work, I was intrigued to see how little average difference there in fact was between the 1991 composer-supervised Loriod recording and this Ongaku performance. Only the fifth movement seems to deviate with any genuine significance, but listening again to Loriod and Fischer-Dieskau and their Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus, while not willing to linger, does seem in proportion with the rest of this ensemble’s approach to the work as a whole. Cohler provides a comparative table which makes for intriguing reading, his ‘Abyss of the Birds’ third movement coming in 30% over time, because he takes literally the request of the composer that the whole E notes should be held “until you can’t blow any more.” Cohler certainly has tremendous breath control, and this movement attains as much a timeless quality as those with the solemnly chiming, repeated piano chords.

No, the most important differences are in the character of the playing. In any case, a composer’s own performances of their work need not necessarily be taken as in any way definitive: can you imagine Mozart playing his own piano concertos the same time three nights running? Composers often ‘hear’ their own music differently as performers, and I’ve run into the same trap of rushing through my own pieces without realising, or being willing to accept that the tempi are all wrong: it’s like reading an over-familiar story to an unfamiliar child, who then makes you wonder why they can’t follow your diction. Messiaen was of course a highly skilled performer at the keyboard, and I would be the last to cast doubt on his own recording, but neither would I blame him if he ‘felt’ those tempi that way on that day and did a little on-the-spot inventing to make the music ‘go’ as he felt it should. Loriod’s EMI recording from 1991 with Wolfgang Meyer, Christoph Poppen and Manuel Ficher-Dieskau, is direct and confrontational where the music demands percussive violence, and still retains an undercurrent of sturm und drang in those long, tender movements. Janice Weber and all of the other players do achieve more of a sense of repose in these visions of eternity, while still being able to kick in with plenty of wildness in the other sections. Theirs is however a controlled fury, the strings digging less deep, the ensemble less willing to give the music the rough edges which make Loriod and her crew more exciting. Just compare the Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes and you’ll hear what I mean.

The Thème et Variations, the piece which also accompanies the 1991 Loriod Quatuor, receives a fine performance here. The musicians respond well to Messiaen’s earlier and more romantic style, but I was intrigued to see that their tempi shave a goodly margin from Yvonne Loriod and Christoph Poppen’s overall timing: 12:18 as supervised by the composer, and a swift 8:34 from the present duo. These musician’s technical prowess is not in doubt however, and the music doesn’t sound particularly rushed. The final ecstatic Très lent movement holds a climax which will bring you back for more, guaranteed.

So, to sum up, this is a very fine Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, but I didn’t find myself stunned by any really mind-blowing revelations as a result of the musician’s no doubt intense and highly detailed research. The playing is excellent and the recording equally so, and I am all for ‘urtext’ interpretations bringing us back from wayward developments in performing tradition for a work, but in the end the differences just aren’t that big. The spirit behind the notes is every bit as important as accurate tempi, if not more so. These musicians’ performance is valid and convincing, but achieves its results from a softer, more rounded sonic palette to that of Yvonne Loriod’s ensemble on EMI. For students of this piece the booklet has extensive quotes from Messiaen’s own preface to the work. If you can get past the truly awful cover art this is a genuinely fine recording of some of the 20th centuries defining chamber music, and will give up its rewards warmly and generously.

Dominy Clements


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