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Quartet pour la fin du temps (1940) [51:56]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Ensemble Incanto: Michaela Paetsch Neftel, violin; Ralph Manno, clarinet; Guido Schiefen, cello; Liese Klahn, piano
rec. 19-22 June 2000, Stiftskirche Bassum, Germany
ARTE NOVA ANO 770760 [51:56]
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Messiaen's vision of the end of time was born in the most improbable and dire circumstances. Written in 1940 in a Silesian prisoner of war camp, the composer was fortunate to have a sympathetic guard who provided him with paper and pencils. The instrumentation is strange, given mainly that he had to compose music for the players that were available, but this odd combination of colors serves the music well.

Ever occupied with birdsong, Messiaen based many of his themes on literal transcriptions of the bird's sounds. It was a favorite technique and this fascination for the music of feathered flying creatures was not only to last his entire life, it was a major creative force for him as well.

Given the circumstances under which this work was composed, one might be instantly drawn to war-time parallels, but this Messiaen's vision of the end of the world is not a gloomy or despondent one. Rather, this music goes to far greater lengths to express the composer's joy for the beginning of eternity rather than his dread of the end of the world. This worldview is most vividly captured in the two movements entitled "Praises for the eternity of Jesus." This is the music of angels and armies, not of emaciated and desperate prisoners. It is a song of freedom, not of captivity.

At the first performance in 1941, the audience of 500 or more captives sat rapt. The composer would later recall that at no other time in his professional life did an audience greet him with more attention, enthusiasm and praise. In addition to the obvious difficulties of a prison camp, the cellist's instrument had only three strings. Messiaen chose to use his instruments not only in ensemble, but also as lone voices, and this thought process led to some particularly original and striking music for the solo clarinet.

One might expect that this music would be fraught with challenges for the listener. Not so. Although there are some jarring dissonances, there are just as many moments of rapturous beauty and soaring, sublime melody. Yes, there are some angular rhythms too, but there are just as many periods of serenity. The music is as deeply spiritual as you might expect it to be given the overt piety of its composer and his unimaginably difficult living circumstances.

Ensemble Incanto give us a nearly flawless performance. Their dedication to the spirituality and mysticism of the score is completely palpable from the first notes. This is not a rendition fraught with empty virtuosity and histrionics. Rather, it is dedicated and passionate story telling that I found to be truly transcendent. Frankly, this recording received my highest compliment: several repeated hearings. This is music that demands the undivided and dedicated attention of the listener. This is a performance that deftly enables that kind of commitment, a true testament to these musicians, who forego the shallow temptation toward egotism, presenting instead a meaningful gift in sound.

Kevin Sutton

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