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Great 5 stars review in Fanfare

May 9, 2022

Raymond Tuttle

MESSIAEN Quatuor pour la fin du temps ● Christina Åstrand (vn); Johnny Teyssier (cl); Henrik Dam Thomsen (vc); Per Salo (pn) ● OUR 6.220679 (47:02)
5 stars: A Quartet for the End of Time for all time? Maybe not, but it is right up there
Assuming no one has done so already, someday four musicians are going to attempt an “original instruments” Quartet that will use instruments similar to those used in Stalag VIII A in Görlitz. Accounts of that first performance indicate that some of the instruments were in disrepair. For example, the piano that Messiaen used was an out-of-tune upright with keys that stuck. It would be fascinating to hear this work as it was heard by the prisoners and their guards on January 15, 1941.
I wrote that it would be “fascinating,” but I don't think it would be musically satisfying, except for the first time, perhaps. This is music whose spiritual beauty should not be compromised or restrained. Maximizing that beauty seems to have been one of the priorities of this new recording. The apex of this is in the fifth movement, the “Louange à l'éternité de Jésus,” which I have never heard played as searingly as it is here by cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen. This is a performance that one might want to hear as one's last music on earth. Violinist Christina Åstrand is not less fine in the concluding “Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus.” I don't know what Henri Akoka's clarinet sounded like in 1941. Perhaps its sound was as smooth and controlled as Johnny Teyssier's on this new recording, but that would be a hard standard to match. Finally, Per Salo's playing balances the angularity of Messiaen's writing for piano with lightness of touch and brightness of tone.
The challenges associated with this work include its unusual instrumentation and the varied characters of its eight movements. How are these movements made to sound like they are part of the same work, and how are the different combinations of instruments, from movement to movement, prevented from making the music sound like just a string of opportunities for each musician to step into the spotlight, so to speak? What keeps this music moving forward irresistibly from its first note to its last? As someone who is not a performer, generally, I am not sure that I could answer any of those questions, and I am not even sure that all musicians are able to explain how they do what they do when they do it well, as happens here. Members of an established piano trio or string quartet will, over time, learn how to read each other's musical minds, but that is less likely to happen when you put together a violin, a cello, a clarinet, and a piano. Fortunately, this recording suggests that the four musicians were deeply in sync with each other, and viewed this opportunity to record the Quartet together as an act of faith and devotion.
In other words, this recording moves to top of the list, when I consider favorite versions on CD. Those include Tashi's (RCA), and one on Philips that features Vera Beths, Anner Bijlsma, George Pieterson, and Reinbert de Leeuw. The only thing to regret is that there is not more music here, although that is true for most recordings of this work. After all, what music do you play after the end of time?
If you care about this work, and you should, get this CD. Raymond Tuttle

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