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Great 5 stars review in Fanfare

September 3, 2022

Huntley Dent

In the booklet for this outstanding new recording of Messiaen’s most popular chamber work, Quartet for the End of Time, it is startling to see the original poster (or perhaps an imagined one?) for the piece’s world premiere, because it took place in Stalag VIII-A, a German prison camp. When France declared war on Germany in September 1939, Messiaen, then almost 31 and already developing a reputation as an organist and composer, found himself conscripted. Unfit for combat because he was near-sighted, Messiaen was assigned to an auxiliary medical unit and shipped to an outpost in Verdun.

These events began an odyssey that is one of the most dramatic in music history. The outline of Messiaen’s wartime endurance and the origins of the Quartet is provided in every program note, but this new release has a special version, a beautifully written, evocative essay by Danish writer Jens Christian Grøndahl. In heightened poetic language Grøndahl weaves the tale quite distinctively. For example, while at the Citadel at Verdun, Messiaen asked to be given watch duty at dawn so that he could listen to the day’s first birdsongs (a personal obsession since he was a teenager).

Here is one instance of how Grøndahl makes use of bare facts. “A blackbird. A nightingale. Olivier loves the clarinet. Later, after the war, when he is teaching his students at the conservatory in Paris, he hums for them like a clarinet. Like a clarinet when the birds awaken. ‘Transpose this to a religious plane, and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven,’ he writes. After the war.”

By interweaving the circumstances surrounding the creation of Quartet for the End of Time, this lovely essay brings history alive. Messiaen was captured when the French garrison at Verdun was in retreat in the spring of 1940, and the captives underwent a grueling forced march to Nancy, more than 80 miles away, with no food and at first no water. In May 1940 the French prisoners were transported to a camp in Görlitz north Germany, on the Polish border. Stalag VIII-A was a harsh place to spend the winter, with the privations of scarce or no heat, a starvation diet, and barely adequate shoes and clothing.

But one of Messiaen’s angels, in which he believed with unshakable faith, intervened. A camp official, one Carl-Albert Brüll, sympathized with Messiaen and provided him with manuscript paper and pencils so that he could compose. Messiaen had become close to three fellow prisoners, a clarinetist, violinist, and cellist. For them he began writing one of the chamber masterpieces of the 20th century. With Brüll’s help, instruments were found locally, and on a freezing January evening in 1941, wearing camp-issued wooden clogs and playing an upright piano with several stuck keys, Messiaen led the world premiere to a packed room. (As a poignant footnote, after the war Brüll went to the Paris church where Messiaen was playing the organ, but his attempt to reconnect was thwarted by the concierge. A second attempt was never made, because Brüll subsequently died in a pedestrian auto accident.) Thanks to the intervention of influential music figures in Paris, Messiaen was released that May.

Quartet for the End of Time is honored by receiving a tribute as eloquent as Grøndahl’s, and I won’t soon forget some of his sentences: “Where there is music, there is no death.” “The soul must learn that it is not a lament that is sung when time ends.” Although he doesn’t analyze the score or even use musical language, Grøndahl makes you feel that you are inside Messiaen’s imagination as he evokes the Apocalypse during wartime. The end of time is transcendence, but in practical terms the phrase evokes one of Messiaen’s most striking techniques, liberating the score from fixed rhythm, conventional time, and traditional harmony.

This new performance is unusually moving and distinctive. The performers are all members of Danish orchestras, three with the Danish National Symphony—principal clarinet Johnny Teyssier, principal cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen, and the orchestra’s pianist and organist, Per Salo—while violinist Christina Åstrand is concertmaster of the Danish Radio Symphony. These accomplished musicians play in perfect sympathy with one another, and they deliver a reading that is quite different from the one imprinted in the minds of most lovers of this score.

I am referring to Tashi’s groundbreaking RCA LP made in 1965, which became a breakout not only for the young performers, led by pianist Peter Serkin and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, but also served as the launch for Quartet for the End of Time in the U.S.—Tashi had formed expressly to record the work. Despite the score’s sizable discography today, Tashi etched an impeccably Modernist performance that many consider definitive. In his review of a CD reissue (Fanfare 30:5), Richard A. Kaplan felt nostalgic for Tashi’s flower child image in the 1960s. “This element—the sense of the youthful musicians’ excitement in the discovery of a very new type of musical expression—combines with an obvious sympathy for Messiaen’s unique mix of Catholic mysticism, bird calls, and exotic scalar, harmonic, and rhythmic patterns.”

Revisiting Tashi’s account, it embodies some qualities that have entered the performance style of Messiaen’s music in general: hard, solid chord, sharp attacks, and a tendency toward the impersonal and percussive. I prefer what this new release offers: lyrical eloquence, warmth, and diminished percussiveness. Teyssier plays the central clarinet solo, “The Abyss of the Birds,” with a melting, singing tone that makes Stoltzman seem a little inexpressive, and the same goes for Salo’s cello in “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.” Where Tashi hammers “The Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets,” which is entirely appropriate, the performers here achieve a potent effect without undue aggressiveness.

Taken together with Grøndahl’s contribution, this performance places the music in a poetic light that I found more moving than any previous recording I’ve heard. OUR Recordings, which was founded in 2006 by the acclaimed recorder virtuoso Michala Petri and guitarist-lutenist Lars Hannibal, provides excellent sound. In all, I can enthusiastically give the strongest recommendation. Huntley Dent

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