Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (1940/1941)
Ib Hausmann (clarinet)
rec. 2018, SWR Studio Kaiserslautern, Germany
C-AVI MUSIC 8553042 
Here are three points to help the listener unfamiliar with Quartet for the End of Time. In 1940/1941, Olivier Messiaen was a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A Görlitz, Lower Silesia; through the auspices of a sympathetic German camp commander, Franzpeter Goebels, he had fresh manuscript paper and a piano to practice on; and, most important, the premiere performance on 15 January 1941 was either given in the camp theatre or out in the bitter cold. Some 400 fellow prisoners and some camp administrators were in attendance. Messiaen later recalled: “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.” The liner notes give details of the original soloists: Jean Le Boulaire (violin), Henri Akoka (clarinet), Étienne Pasquier (cello) and Olivier Messiaen (piano).
The basic theological inspiration of the Quartet was a quotation from the last book in the New Testament, The Revelation of St John the Divine. Chapter 10: 1 declares: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with 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 work’s eight hugely contrasting movements represent the seven days of Creation and an evocation of Eternity. The overall effect is “one of meditation, amity and detachment from the harsh realities of existence”.
My benchmark for any performance of Quatuor is ensemble’s ability to “bend time”. Certainly, this is essential in the two heart-breaking slow movements, Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus and Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus. Each lasts about eight minutes but must create the impression that it will never stop, and that the listener would never want them to conclude. This has been accomplished here. I was impressed throughout by clarinettist Ib Hausman’s contribution, especially in the brilliant solo Abîme des oiseaux. The unison playing in Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes is clean and well controlled. Great contrast of dynamics is clear in Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du temps.
Ib Hausman assembled the booklet in German and English. The programme notes are in three parts. Several personalized comments describe some of the challenges of performing the Quatuor. There is an explanation of the balance between the strict notation of the work and the fact that each musician “is allowed a certain degree of latitude for inspiration and improvisational freedom”. A brief overview of Messiaen’s life and milieu emphasises the composer’s understanding of time and eternity. There is a historical introduction to the work, a discussion of the first performance, and a translation of Messiaen’s important preface and notes for each movement printed in the Edition Durand score. Detailed resumes of the Amatis Trio and the clarinettist Ib Hausman follow; this information can be accessed on their websites, here and here.
The CD contains only one work. There is an exceptional performance by the Ensemble Nordlys (my review); that disc included the relatively rare Fantasie for violin and piano (1933) and Thème et variations for violin and piano (1932). Enthusiasts of Messiaen will know of his other chamber pieces that could have been included: Le Merle noir (1952) for solo flute, Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (1991), Chant dans le style Mozart, Fugue sur le sujet de Georges Hüe (1930/1931) and Chant donneé (1953). Those are all rarely heard. To be sure, they would have required an additional soloist.
This excellent, absorbing version of Quatuor pour la fin du temps has nothing to repel listeners who may regard some of Messiaen’s music as fearsome. The theological superstructure may be difficult for some. But if the piece is regarded as a meditation on the philosophical concept of eternity rather than a religious tract, then the work can be a revelation to all.
Several years ago, I counted 39 versions of the work, and 33 are currently listed on the Eurodisc webpage. (Presto Classical lists 97 recordings of either the complete piece or one of the movements.) Quatuor pour la fin du temps is one of Olivier Messiaen’s undoubted and abiding masterworks, so any new issue is welcome. This recording is especially appreciated for its attention to the nuanced balance between freedom of musical expression and the composer’s written demands.
Amatis Trio: Lea Hausmann (violin), Samuel Shepherd (cello), Mengjie Han