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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5 [7:12]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps [48:16]
Oleg Kagan (violin); Eduard Brunner (clarinet); Natalia Gutman (cello); Vassily Lobanov (piano)
rec. 1988, State Pushkin Museum of Visual Arts, December Evenings Festival
MELODIYA MELCD1002310 [55:34]

In June 1913 Alban Berg visited his teacher Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin, having just completed the Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5. The critical reaction from the master left Berg reeling. Schoenberg felt that his student should not pursue the course of minimalism as his other student, Webern, had done, but would be better served working in extended orchestral forms. Despite severely knocking the young composer’s confidence, the four pieces were premiered in Vienna in 1919 at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performance. Berg never travelled that road again.

Cast in the atonal mode, the Op. 5 pieces total 63 bars, with each movement lasting between one and three minutes. Yet within this short duration Berg explores a myriad range of expression, with the technical demands on both players unforgiving. For the clarinettist, he employs such effects as flutter-tongue, sub-tones and stop-tongue staccato, all of these adding light and shade to these imaginatively constructed pieces. They seem more romantically forged than Webern’s efforts - not as angular or pointillistic. The second piece, for instance, is quite lyrical. The Swiss clarinettist Eduard Brunner, then a player with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the pianist and composer Vassily Lobanov, deliver stylish and idiomatic performances, always sensitive to the rhythmic and dynamic flux of this complex music.

In 1940 during the German invasion of France, Messiaen was captured and interned in the POW camp Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz, Silesia. A sympathetic guard provided him with manuscript paper. Utilizing what instrumental forces he had to hand (clarinet, violin, cello and piano), he composed what is probably his best known work, Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Its eight movements take as their inspiration a vision from The Book of Revelations, Chapter X: "And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven". Against a backdrop of war, death, cold and famine, the work reflects how the composer coped with this appalling situation and how he made sense of his condition in the light of his strong Catholic faith. The eight movements consist of four for the complete quartet, one solo, two duets and one trio.

The players give impassioned accounts of the movements, and capture the mysticism and exoticism of the score. The birdsong in nos. 1 and 3 is eloquently portrayed with fervour and conviction by Eduard Brunner. Natalia Gutman and Oleg Kagan offer sublime and deeply meditative accounts of the two Louanges. Kagan’s ethereal performance has a certain added poignancy, as he died only two years later, at the early age of forty-three. Throughout the Quartet, perfect ensemble is achieved, and one cannot fail to be moved by such committed playing. Sound quality is first class.

The recordings were made at the December Evenings Festival that takes place each year at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. The festival was initiated in 1981 by Sviatoslav Richter and Irina Antonova, the museum’s director. Since that time it has been an eagerly anticipated annual event. Richter assembled distinguished friends and musicians to perform chamber music, and he himself would give solo recitals and accompany lieder. Kagan and Gutman were mainstays of the festival. Richter died in 1997, yet the concerts continue to thrive to this day.

Stephen Greenbank



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