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Fanfare interview with Christina Åstrand, by Colin Clarke

June 2, 2022

Colin Clarke

An Unknown, Distant Music: Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps. Violinist Christina Åstrand in Interview
By Colin Clarke
Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (to use its title in English) remains one of the most remarkable works of the entire Western repertoire: it is a masterpiece that breathes hope and faith, hewn out of the most difficult conditions. The new SACD recording on OUR Recordings is remarkable, itself recorded in the strained conditions of lockdown.
OUR is a label known for its excellence of sound as well as its commitment to contemporary music (I’m thinking particularly of its releases of music by Axel Borup-Jørgensen, for example). OUR’s previous Messiaen recording was a disc which I feel might be complementary to yours, Marcus Creed’s superb disc of choral works: Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine, Cinq Rechants, and O sacrum convivium. Is this the idea, or is this part of an ongoing series of Messiaen recordings, do you know?
This recording together with OUR Recordings’ other Messiaen releases is not part of a series. But I agree that they complement each other in the very best way.
I’m intrigued how your own musical life, Christina—and I’m guessing based on what I can find of your activity, so please do correct me if I’m wrong!—moves between orchestral music (leader of the Danish National Orchestra), chamber music (as here), and soloist. Do you find they strengthen each other? And do you have a preference?
I have always loved playing in my orchestra—and likewise as a soloist. And who doesn’t love chamber music? I really can’t live without any of it. I do find that all genres complement one another, and everything is actually implicit in being a concertmaster. You have to remain at the highest level of playing to have the respect from your colleagues. So I am very grateful for all the possibilities I have to play as a soloist or chamber musician. Being used to performing as a soloist makes me more confident when I play my solos in the orchestra. Anyway, it is great fun and it develops my way of playing and I meet lovely musicians all over the world.
I didn’t realize until I was some way into the research for this interview that you recorded one of my favorite discs of contemporary music, the Chandos disc of Ligeti and Nørgard violin concertos plus Nørgard’s Sonata, “The Secret Melody.” Does this immersion help you to place Messiaen’s music in perspective? In a sense you’ll often be looking back in time at the Quatuor....
Thank you so much for your kind words about my Ligeti/Nørgård disc. This is for me also most fantastic music to play, and I am so happy that I met both composers and worked on the music with them.
Perspective is important. I started my musical career playing the entire classical repertoire, but in the first years I was so afraid to do “something wrong” with these masterpieces. It is a heavy burden for any musician today being able to listen to the very best and legendary musicians, in recordings or live. At some point I landed on the contemporary music stage in Denmark. I started to work closely with different composers such as Hans Abrahamsen, Per Nørgård, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, and many more. And I felt a kind of liberation from all classical dogmas. I could really feel free in playing, creating my own musical expression and being myself. This was an epiphany for me, and it also made me much more confident when I played the “old masterpieces.”
How about the present performers playing together? Are you regular collaborators? I notice, Christina, that you’re recorded a joyous disc of violin sonatas by Niels Gade with Per Salo on the DaCapo label, for example, but given that I believe he is your husband I suppose that partnership is inevitable!
And of course Johnny Teyssier and Henrik Dam Thomsen are also members of the Danish Radio Orchestra—I certainly was very taken not only with the very precise ensemble you muster but also from the sense of connection between all four of you in the various combinations Messiaen uses.
Henrik Dam Thomsen and Johnny Teyssier are two of my most wonderful and gifted colleagues in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Per is of course the same and also much more because we have been married for more than 20 years. All four of us have been working closely together for many projects over the years, both in the orchestra and as chamber musicians. So when Per and I were asked to play this piece in our local church, to commemorate the end of World War I in 2018, we couldn’t imagine anyone else to play with in this piece than Henrik and Johnny. For this very concert we wanted to do something special, and we commissioned the fantastic Danish author Jens Christian Grøndahl to write texts to complement the music, to give listeners more of a reminder of the historical setting of this piece. We actually gave him “free hands” (as we say in Denmark) to write wherever the music took him. At the concert we felt inspired by the words, and it created a very special atmosphere with his words surrounding this unbelievably strong and beautiful music.
I like the idea of Messiaen, the prisoner, refusing to be “imprisoned” by rhythm, and we feel the flexibility in the piece. Perhaps two differing aspects of this are the clarinet’s eternal lines of “Abîme des oiseaux” set against the elasticity of rhythms in “Intermède” (and later in the displaced accents of “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompette”). I notice in your performance that when the dynamic level subsides, it really does dance lightly on its feet! Could you perhaps comment on Messiaen’s use of rhythm in this piece?
We have worked so much with this music, as well as the whole context of its creation, and we find new things in the score all the time. Messiaen is so clear and absolutely without compromise. It is really clear to see the underlying mathematics if you choose to look more closely in the score. Every single note is placed in a perfect match to the overall idea. And some of the passages that sound the most free and improvised to any listener have a perfect balance in rhythm and are, for instance, mirrored in the middle of the bar. It is a giant puzzle to work out, but it feels like being lifted to another level when we play this music. I feel the same way about Ligeti’s music; Per Nørgård and Arvo Pärt are also fantastic representatives to me.
The idea of the violin as nightingale, the clarinet as blackbird: Did these ideas inform your interpretation? What, then, is the cello? (Henrik Dam Thomsen’s cello sings almost vocally in the “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus”!)
Messiaen wrote himself that the clarinet was a blackbird and the violin a nightingale. And the “Louange” for cello and the “Louange” at the end for violin is for me a kind of prayer that promises something heavenly and bright. It’s amazing that he wrote this in such dreadful circumstances.
Actually, the instrumentation—which was the result of circumstance and hardship after all—is used ingeniously by Messiaen in creating a selection of solos, duos, and so on. Would you care to explain a little more about the structure of the piece?
All the movements are constructed to mirror (or comment on) a specific text from the Gospel of John. There are eight movements total. Each of the four musicians plays six movements, and only four movements are tutti. I don´t know about his mysteries of numbers, but I am sure Messiaen has a special reason for every note and for the overall structure of this.
The famous violin movement, the final “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” is “your” movement of course (along with Mr. Salo, of course). It is the violin that, although initially representing Jesus the Man, ends with a long ascent into the higher registers of your instrument to represent the ascent back into Heaven. What would you say are the challenges of this movement for the violinist?
It is so beautiful and so hard to play after the long journey through this piece. First of all, it is hard to keep the pulse down and relax sufficiently to avoid the bow jumping up and down. All the muscles in the body have been working so hard for almost an hour, and the mind has also been on a long journey. So it is very challenging to keep calm and also have the strength to play such a long musical line. The movement is nine minutes long, and it is truly a climb from the most silent place to heaven. Every time I play it, it is different, because it depends on the atmosphere, the hall, and the audience. Scary!
How did you go about rehearsing the piece? How was it on a technical level, and if the religious/spiritual aspects came into the equation, in what way did they?
We rehearsed the movements very carefully together, both slowly for intonation and in tempo for the flow. And then we opened our senses and did our very best to honor Messiaen and his musical directions. Then the rest is about letting the music speak and letting go.
I imagine the work must be exhausting to play on a concentration level.
Very much so.
And what about how the Quatuor influenced music after it? How far-reaching is its influence?
I think it has inspired many, many composers. And perhaps it also helped some people, experiencing war or other hardships in life, to regain their belief in love, light, and beauty again. I really hope so.
The recording quality is excellent—this seems to be a constant for OUR Recordings. It was taken down in Odense, right? And Preben Iwan seems to be a one-person super-recorder—producer, recording and balance engineer, editing, mix, and remastering! Normally many of those roles are accorded to separate people—was there a reason it was all one person on this occasion?
Preben is amazing. It would have been easier for him with help at the recording session. But it was in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that we did the recording, and it was the natural decision since there were only the five of us.
How did you record? Mainly long takes? Certainly some movements seem to ask for that.
This is a recording with few takes. We tried different things to improve small details, but found that the flow and concentration by far exceeded the importance of perfection. We have performed the piece several times with an actor, who read the words by Jens Christian Grøndahl before and between the movements. The words uplifted the music, and vice versa.
And what are your recording plans going forwards? Anything directly off the back of this?
This was recorded in June 2020 during the coronavirus shutdown. Amazingly, we had the hall, almost the whole city, for ourselves. I have since then recorded a violin concerto by Danish composer Else Marie Pade—amazing music from the 1950s, before she did her electronic works. This will be released on DaCapo Records later this year, I think.