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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Fantaisie (1930) [8:59]; Quatuor pour le fin du temps (1941) [44:15]; Le merle noir (1952) [6:24]; Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (1991) [3:07]; Morceau de lecture à vue * (1934) [1:59]
Matthew Schellhorn (piano); Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London
rec. Suffolk, 17-19 February 2008. DDD
*world premiere recording
SIGNUM SIGCD126 [66:38]

Experience Classicsonline

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 Görlitz. 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 à 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. A more complete “performance version” of Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes was heard at the Proms in 2008. Here Schellhorn gives us the original, as Messiaen left it. As such, its very simplicity is a virtue, for it reminds us just how pure and sincere Messiaen’s vision could be.

Anne Ozorio


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