Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 - 1991)
Quatuor por la fin du temps. (Quartet for the end of time)
Gil Shaham (violin),Paul Meyer
Jian Wang (cello), Myung-Whun Chang (piano)
Recorded Radio France, Paris. 6 / 1999 DDD
Deutsche Grammophon 469
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Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the end of time is probably better
known for its origins, the story of its first performance and its magnificent
title than it is as a piece of music. Like, for instance, Joyce's Ulysses
- known of and spoken of with respect but seldom actually read. The history
of the Quartet's gestation and events surrounding the work is worth repeating.
In June 1940, the conscripted Messiaen was taken prisoner by the Germans
and sent to a camp in Silesia, and it was there he wrote the work. Initially
the only instrument in the camp was a clarinet, then a violin followed, a
piano with sticky keys appeared and following a collection by fellow prisoners
enough was raised to buy a cello from the nearby town. The quartet was first
performed in a crowded prison hut in January 1941.
Fortunately Messiaen had first-rate players available. A transcript of an
interview with the cellist, Etienne Pasquier, is included with the disc and
it makes fascinating reading. He tells how Messiaen wrote a piece for the
clarinettist (a member of the French National Orchestra) who insisted the
piece was too hard but received no sympathy from the composer - the piece
eventually became the third movement of the Quartet. He (the cellist) insists
his instrument did not have just three strings as Messiaen apparently liked
to claim - '"a piece as difficult as this could not be played on just three
strings. It was Messiaen's way of pointing out the inadequacies at this first
performance". Subsequently the four performers were sent back to France by
the Germans - "As musicians you had no guns" quoted from a German officer.
This was preferential treatment as many of their fellow prisoners spent several
more years in captivity.
Whatever the circumstances of its birth - perhaps they helped - the work
is a deeply felt, intense piece from a man whose Catholic faith was strong
and unwavering. He chose as his theme for the Quartet an extract from the
Revelations and their foretelling of the writer's (St.John) vision of the
Day of Judgement and its reference to "mighty angels". The work has eight
sections - the number is not a random choice but was based upon the six days
of the creation, the Sabbath followed by eternity.
The other staple of Messiaen's music was his use of birdsong - here in the
opening Section Liturgie de cristal with the clarinet as a blackbird
and added trills from the other performers representing daybreak and the
birds awakening. Two short ensemble passages, with loud prominent piano chords
open and close the second movement and frame a middle section of gently repeated
phrases by the piano against hushed strings. Abyss of the birds, a
clarinet solo beginning in contemplative, wistful mood then switches to chirpy
birdsong to contrast joy with the weariness of time before returning to its
A brief scherzo-like interlude leads to the Fifth Section Eulogy to the
Eternity of Jesus. The slow, lingering cello part, full of sustained
notes (John Tavener comes quickly to mind ) and sparse piano writing make
an intense, powerful statement in this longest part of the work. Unison playing
dominates the Dance of Frenzy, for the seven trumpets and the appearances
of the Angel in section seven is in the form of violent interjections into
dreamy violin and piano duets. The closing Eulogy is not unlike the cello
writing in the fifth movement - here changed to piano supporting the violin
in a long lined melody.
This is a piece that does not give up its secrets easily, the listener must
work hard but the end result is worth it. The performance and recording are
first class and the issue is well worth investigating.