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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (1940)
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
Lucas Debargue (piano)
Janine Jansen (violin)
Torleif Thedéen (cello)
rec. 2017, Siemensvilla, Berlin SONY CLASSICAL 88985363102 [47:19]
The history of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, possibly his most recognized and best loved work, is by now well known. Messiaen was one among thousands of French soldiers who were captured by the German army and taken to a makeshift camp near Nancy in May 1940. It was while imprisoned there that he met the clarinetist and cellist for whom he composed the quartet. At the end of June they were moved to a Prisoner of War camp, Stalag VIII A, some 110 km east of Dresden. By then he had also met a violinist and the four formed the quartet for this piece. As Nigel Simeone states in his somewhat brief, but detailed note to the CD, the two “Louange” movements were adapted by the composer for this quartet: Messiaen reused music from Fête des belles eaux for six ondes Martenot of 1937 for the fifth movement and part of the Diptique for organ of 1930 for the final movement. The delightful Intermède was the first movement Messiaen composed in Stalag VIII A, followed by the rest of the work once the authorities found a piano for him and one of the guards provided him with manuscript paper. The quartet received its premiere at the camp on 15 January 1941.
There have been many fine recordings of the quartet over the years. Two of them in my collection have impressed me greatly. My first exposure was with Tashi, comprised of clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, pianist Peter Serkin, violinist Ida Kavafian, and cellist Fred Sherry (RCA). I supplemented this with the EMI account by clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer, pianist Yvonne Loriod, violinist Christoph Poppen, and cellist Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (son of renowned baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). I continue to admire both of these, but have an overall preference for the latter. How does this new one stack up against those?
First, all of the musicians are celebrated as soloists and display all of the expected virtuosity. However, this work depends on a depth of expression that such virtuosity can at times obscure. For example, in the first movement clarinetist Martin Fröst takes centre stage and projects with his wonderfully woody tone that immediately impresses. I prefer his sound to that of Richard Stoltzman in the Tashi account that can turn shrill and unpleasant. Wolfgang Meyer, on the other hand, is better balanced with the other performers in the EMI performance and with his warm tone creates the right mood of the movement. So, it goes throughout the work. When Janine Jansen and Torleif Thedéen get their chance to “show off” in the Louange movements, respectively, one is aware of their extraordinary technique, though their employment of portamento can become tiring and seems out of place in this composition. Contrasting with this is Fred Sherry’s cello solo in the fourth movement of the Tashi account that is chaste in the extreme with little or no vibrato or portamento. His seems more in tune with the nature of the piece, though Manuel Fischer-Dieskau has the best of both worlds. He uses normal vibrato, but does not call attention to himself as Thedéen tends to do. It is noteworthy that Sherry plays the last two pizzicato notes in the Intermèdeforte, whereas with the other cellists the notes are almost thrown away and very quiet. I compared this spot with a number of recordings and found virtually all of them playing these quietly, which I assume is what Messiaen intended. Also particularly striking are the cellist’s glissandi in the seventh movement, which create an eerie effect not too far removed from that of Messiaen’s beloved ondes Martenot. Of the violinists, Jansen brings out an intensity in the final movement the others do not approach. Next to her, Ida Kavakian creates a rapt stillness with her final long note just dying away. As to the pianists, Yvonne Loriod has some claim to authority because she was Messiaen’s second wife and the inspiration for many masterpieces by her husband. All the same, Peter Serkin and Lucas Debargue do full justice to the score.
If I had to choose just one account of this quartet, it would be the EMI. Overall, it has the best balance and the recording has plenty of presence while not being too close. Tashi are recorded at a somewhat greater distance which contributes to the feeling of reticence here and there. This new version is upfront with a vibrant sound that impresses in its own right. There’s no doubting Martin Fröst’s virtuosity and his splendid tone, which can be best sampled in his solo movement, Abîme des oiseaux, with its wonderful bird calls. Both the RCA and Sony discs contain only the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps. It would be hard to follow it up with another piece, as it can leave one exhausted due to the overwhelming power of the work. The EMI CD, on the other hand, includes as a coupling appropriately Messiaen’s Thème et variations for violin and piano, bringing that disc to nearly an hour. I am glad I have heard this Sony recording and will turn to it again in the future, even if my first port of call remains the EMI account.