Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871–1942)
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in D minor, Op. 3 (1896) [28:44]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908–1992)
Quartet for the End of Time (1940–41) [48:54]
Ensemble Liaison (David Griffiths (clarinet), Svetlana Bogosavljevic (cello), Timothy Young (piano)); Wilma Smith (violin, Messiaen)
rec. 10-11 June 2010 (Zemlinsky) and 21-22 December 2010 (Messiaen), Iwaki Auditorium
MELBA RECORDINGS MR 301132 [77:38]
This is an intriguing coupling of two fascinating but stylistically disparate works. The booklet notes go as far as they can in making a case for relating Zemlinsky and Messiaen, but the points of contrast are stronger.
Modelled on the example of Brahms and stamped with that great master’s approval, Zemlinsky’s Trio in D minor counts amongst his earlier works. This is the kind of quasi-symphonic chamber music which is a demonstration vehicle for thematic development both within movements and over the span of the piece, integrating fragments of the opening movement into the finale, and creating a magnificent depth of contrast between eloquent and dramatic outer movements, and a serenely expressive central Andante.
There is a very good recording of the Zemlinsky Trio on Naxos which was made Bargain of the Month back in October 2008 (see review). This version is indeed very competitive, set in a slightly more resonant acoustic and with the cello a little more prominent in the mix, but otherwise comparable in terms of timings and musicality. In the end it will probably be the couplings which decide things for you if a decision is required between these two.
One of the masterpieces of the 20th century, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time has no shortage of fine recordings. Once again I’ve picked on a Naxos competitor, that with the Amici Ensemble (see review), though this time the choice is a little easier. The Amici Ensemble is excellent, but Ensemble Liaison has them beaten in the Quatour. From the start in the Liturgie de cristal there is more character in the little birdsong statements, and in general throughout the string intonation is more secure. There are lovely touches throughout this score, and the Liaison players make the most of most of them. The playful textures of the Intermède are a treat, and the extended solos are all taken with suitable profundity. The unison playing in, for instance, the Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes is by turns delicious and full of electric impact.
A stronger argument in comparative terms can be made for the EMI collection which is still a favourite, with Yvonne Loriod at the piano (see review). This classic version is harder hitting than this Melba recording, with greater extremes of dynamic and a higher emotional investment. All of the timings are shorter on the EMI recording, reflecting a more urgent rendition of the work, though capable of generating the utmost atmosphere of reflection in crucial movements such as the final Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus. The Liaison Ensemble is very good here as well, but more inclined to offer an open hand of calm rather than a closed fist of restrained intensity. Loriod et al won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and this Melba recording offers an equally refined performance in technical terms; with plenty of drama, but less ferocity and fury at the extremes.
Dominy Clements
A fascinating coupling … plenty of drama, but less ferocity and fury at the extremes.

Masterwork Index: Quartet for the End of Time