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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)
DANACORD DACOCD756 [66:13]

The Thème et Variations (1932) and the Fantasie for violin and piano (1933) are Messiaen’s only contribution to the violin and piano literature. Both were written for his first wife Claire Delbos, who was herself a composer as well as a violinist. The Thème et Variations have the added significance of being the 23 year old composer’s wedding gift to Delbos. Both works were performed by the pair in the 1930s but the Fantasie seems to have languished in obscurity for many years after its initial exposure. Thought to be lost, it was discovered by Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, the composer’s widow, and only published in 2007 by Editions Durand.

The Fantasie is in loose sonata-form, embracing exotic melodies, which are modal in nature, some suggestive of plainchant. It employs complex polyrhythms. It is exhilarating, intense and exciting, written when the composer was twenty-five and still trying to find his own distinctive voice. In his writing for violin there are faint suggestions of birdsong which would become a distinctive feature in his later music. Throughout, the work is tinged with the spiritual fingerprint distinctive of this composer. The work begins with a declamatory octave opening on the piano, ushering in the violin. As it progresses, it builds up to a dramatic climax. As the title Fantasie implies, the structure is fairly free and rhapsodic.

The Thème et Variations for violin and piano was premiered on 22 November 1932 by the composer and his wife. It has the distinction of being Messiaen's first piece of instrumental chamber music. A tranquil theme is followed by four increasingly animated variations. At the end of the work, the theme is restated an octave higher. Despite being quite traditional in form, it is stamped with Messiaen’s trademark melodies, harmonies and rhythms. This composition apparently made a lasting impression on the young Pierre Boulez.

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 were at his disposal he composed what is probably his most well-known work Quatuor pour la fin du temps. In eight movements it takes as its inspiration a vision from The Book of Revelations, Chapter X: "And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven".
 
The resultant masterpiece thus emerged from a background of war, death, cold and famine. It narrates the composer’s ability to cope with this awful situation and how he made sense of his condition in the light of his strong Catholic faith. It was composed for the unusual combination of instruments — clarinet, violin, cello and piano — that were available to him at the time in the camp. The eight movements consist of four for the complete quartet, one solo, two duets and one trio.
 
The Quatuor has been well served with fine recordings over the years. The Ensemble Nordlys traversal can be confidently added to that list. It is a gripping reading, intelligently thought-out and characterized by sincerity. I was impressed by the wide dynamic range achieved, and by the devotional aspect this group of players bring to the score. They deliver a profoundly moving and heartfelt experience. The clarinet solo in the third movement Abyss of the birds I would single out as exquisitely played. The two Louanges are kept flowing and are striking for their ethereal and other-worldly qualities.

The Danish group Ensemble Nordlys (The Northern Lights Ensemble) was founded in 1997, and has a repertoire ranging from baroque to contemporary. They are really inside the music of Messiaen and play with heartfelt commitment. Each of the performances is idiomatic and stylistically compelling. In well-recorded sound, clarity and definition between the instruments are suitably captured.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: John France