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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Songs for the End of Time - Volume 1
Quartet for the End of Time (1941, arr. Ben Russell and Brandon Ridenour)
Rec. 2019, The Oratory Church of St. Boniface, New York
Reviewed as download
FOUNDERS 5059654 298177 [41:19]

Olivier Messiean’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) may seem an unlikely choice for a radical rework, but Ben Russell and Brandon Ridenour, members of the new music ensemble Founders, did just that, all the while remaining faithful to both the spirit and the austere beauty of the original.

Quartet was composed by Messiaen, then in his early thirties, while he was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Originally conceived as a trio for a violinist, cellist and clarinetist, who were also detained in the camp, Messiaen subsequently reworked it into a larger-scaled piece that included piano. The premiere took place in January 1941, with Messiaen playing an old upright piano in frigid conditions before an audience of prisoners and camp guards.

A devout Catholic, Messiaen took his inspiration for Quartet from the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible. Revelation opens with a series of visions foretelling the coming of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Each horseman represents a disaster that culminates in armies of angels destroying the forces of evil, the destruction of all on earth and the creation of a new world.

Necessity dictated the instruments with which Messiaen had to work, but in no way hindered him from creating a work of transcendent beauty. The young French composer crafted musical textures that range from ethereal unison passages to massive eight-note chords. The four instruments only play together in half of the movements, while extended solos provide some of the most intriguing music of the score.

Founders is a Brooklyn-based ensemble and songwriting collective, that in addition to Russell (violin/vocals) and Ridenour (trumpet/piano), is comprised of Hamilton Berry (cello/vocals), Yoonah Kim (clarinet) and Greg Chudzik (bass). Their adaptation of Quartet received its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca New Music Festival. In February 2020, Founders won the SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge at the University of South Carolina performing selections from it.

Russell and Ridenour’s most obvious departures from the original are in rearranging Quartet for five instead of four instruments and the inclusion of sung text. They, like Messiaen, had to work with the instruments available to them — violin, cello, bass, clarinet and trumpet — and as they are song writers, including voice was a natural for them. The other major difference is the incorporation of jazz, rock and other non-classical styles in their version of the piece.

Their Quartet begins with a drone and the chanting of the passage from Revelations that Messiaen had printed in the score. A lone male voice begins on a single tone, but gradually dissonant harmonies and melodic elements are added as other voices make their entrances. Crashing chords and trumpet fanfares announce that the mysteries of God have been fulfilled and that time has ceased to exist. Then, more familiar music is heard.

Messiaen evoked the eternal through bird calls, modality and shimmering sounds. The instruments for which he wrote, as well as his emphasis on clarity and spareness of musical textures, lend a certain starkness to the work. The Founders’ version is more colorful and exuberant, a natural result of both the disparate musical styles in it and the instruments for which they wrote, particularly the trumpet. And although Messiaen gave explicit markings throughout the score, primal, hellish and beat mode weren’t among them, but they are to be found in the score of Founders’ Quartet.

Messiaen wrote wonderful birdcalls for the clarinet. Throughout Founder’s reimagined Quartet, but most notably in the third movement ‘Abyss of the birds’, the trumpet, often muted, engages in lively and beautiful avian dialogues with the clarinet. The exquisite, other worldly solos for cello in the fifth movement ‘The Eternity of Jesus’ and the violin in the eight movement ‘The Immortality of Jesus’, are faithfully rendered, if not exactly replicated.

Rather than piano, Russell and Ridenour had string sonorities, as well as the judicious use of clarinet and trumpet, to exploit in creating sustained and more vibrant accompaniments for the solo instruments. Nonetheless, it is the trumpet that adds brilliance and energy to the ‘Seven Trumpets and the Dance of the Furies’ and the other movements in which it is heard. Messiaen, with his love of color and drama, would certainly have included one if that had been an option.

Human voices return in the final movement singing stanzas from the ancient Latin sequence hymn ‘Dies irae’ that describes the Last Judgment; trumpets summon the multitudes before the throne of God where those worthy of salvation will be saved and the rest cast into eternal flames. Rather than summoning demons and terror, however, these twenty-first century musicians chose the gentler, soothing passages imploring God to be merciful and the hope that the souls of the righteous will be bathed in perpetual light.

Founders’ intention was to make this seminal work more accessible to people who may never think of attending a chamber music concert, but will go to hear an edgy new music ensemble. With their respect for the original work and the spirituality with which they imbued their thoughtful and creative reworking of it, to say nothing of their fine performances, with this recording they are well on their way to achieving that goal.

Rick Perdian

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