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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Fantasie for violin and piano (1933) [7:47]
Thème et variations for violin and piano (1932) [10:23]
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) [48:00]
Ensemble Nordlys (Christine Pryn (violin); Viktor Wennesz (clarinet); Øystein Sonstad (cello); Kristoffer Hyldig (piano))
rec. Sorgenfri Kirke, Denmark, February 2010 (Fantasie; Thème et variations); Hvidovre Musikskole, Denmark, July 2013 (Quatuor)

I glanced at the catalogue detailing Messiaen’s chamber works: there are relatively few examples.

The present CD includes three major works that are in the repertoire. Another well-known piece is Le Merle Noir (1951) for solo flute. The late Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (1991) and some other bits and pieces such as the Chant dans le style Mozart, Fugue sur le sujet de Georges Hüe and the Chant donneé seem to be rarely heard.

Looking at the Arkiv catalogue reveals a huge disparity in attention given to the three compositions presented on this disc. The Quartet has a stunning 39 versions, the Theme and Variations an impressive 23. What has gone wrong with the beautiful Fantasie - only two are listed.

It is superfluous to repeat the compositional history of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941). Three things are important. Firstly, Olivier Messiaen was held in German captivity during the Second World War at Stalag VIII-A Görlitz, Lower Silesia. Secondly, a kindly German guard provided the composer with manuscript paper. How grateful Messiaen was to him is a matter for debate. Thirdly, the Quatuor received its premiere in the camp theatre — or possibly outside in the cold — during January 1941. Messiaen’s thoughtful quartet was heard in ‘rapt silence’. The composer later remarked that ‘Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.’

The liner-notes do not mention the original soloists: Jean Le Boulaire (violin), Henri Akoka (clarinet), Étienne Pasquier (cello) and Olivier Messiaen (piano).

The inspiration for the work is from the Revelation of St John, Chapter 10: ‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed in a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire …’ The Quatuor is in eight contrasting sections and uses various combinations of instruments. These represent the seven days of creation and the eighth, perhaps the most beautiful in the quartet, depicting eternity. The general impact is one of meditation, amity and detachment from the harsh realities of existence. I enjoyed the playing of this great work by Ensemble Nordlys.

Many listeners who know and love the Quatuor will not be aware of the Thème et variations for violin and piano which was a gift to Messiaen’s first wife Claire Delbos for their wedding day in June 1932. She was a composer and violinist. It was premiered later that year. The concept of the work is of ever more ‘vivid and intense’ variations after a quiet and gentle opening theme. The work concludes with a final variation which is a reprise of this theme, but now revealed in considerable glory. Messiaen was beginning to experiment here with his own distinctive voice; however there are still traces of more traditional mid-twentieth century French music.

The stunning Fantasie for violin and piano, written in 1933, was also dedicated to Claire Delbos. The work was put aside by the composer and rediscovered in his papers after his death. It was published in 2007. On the face of it, this is hardly typical of what we imagine from Messiaen. There is much here that is post-romantic in its passion, drive and relatively conventional - for the period - harmonies. Conversely, it has the Messiaen characteristic of being able to suspend time for the listener: the central ‘dreamy’ section being a case in point. There are no theological or philosophical implications: just a deep feeling of spiritual love aimed at his wife rather than God. This is a treasure that all enthusiasts of Messiaen will be delighted to get to know ... if they do not already.

Both the Thème et variations and the Fantasie are played here with skill and engagement. They are absorbing and often beautiful works.

Ensemble Nordlys (The Northern Light Ensemble) have as part of their vision ‘breaking the boundaries between music of different epochs’. Typically a concert will include music from a variety of historical periods. The group was founded in 1997 and has since toured extensively in Europe, Asia and the United States. They appear regularly in their home country of Denmark at concerts and music festivals.

The make-up of the group allows considerable flexibility – it is basically a piano trio with added clarinet. This enables them to tackle a wide range of music from baroque to contemporary with various instrumental combinations. A number of works have been written specifically for the Ensemble Nordlys.

The liner-notes by Erik Christensen are excellent, giving a brief account of the Fantasie and Variations as well as information on the Quartet, including the composer’s detailed comments on each movement. There is a wonderfully succinct overview of the composer, reduced to two paragraphs. This is surprisingly helpful. I was a bit disappointed by the cover photograph which seems rather dour for such gripping and vital music.

The liner-notes sum up this CD: ‘The music of Messiaen is seductive. It delights the senses and challenges the mind, emoting both peaceful and violent emotions.’ Each of these pieces is excellently played and inspires and moves. It is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of Messiaen’s music and provides great interest by showcasing two of the composer’s lesser-known works with the great masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

John France