Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time; Kurt Rohde: one wing*. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (Jerome Simas, clarinet; *Anna Presler, violin; Tanya Tomkins, cello; *Eric Zivian, piano). AVIE AV2452.
Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic and something of a mystic, his work often based on religious imagery and containing sounds and inspirations from nature, especially birds. He wrote in the preface of the score to the Quartet it had been inspired by text from the Book of Revelation. You can get a feel for both the religious and nature-derived inspirations in Messiaen’s work by perusing a quick summary of the eight movements of this work and the titles that Messiaen gave them. I. “Liturgie de cristal” (“Crystal Liturgy”). Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.” This movement features the full quartet. II. "Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps" (“Vocalise, for the Angel Announcing the End of Time”). Messiaen writes: “The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello.” III. "Abîme des oiseaux" (“The Abyss of the Birds”). Messiaen writes: “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.” This movement is for solo clarinet. IV. "Intermède" (“Interlude”). Messiaen writes: “Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.” This movement is a trio for violin, cello, and clarinet. V. "Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus" (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”). Messiaen writes: “Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, ‘infinitely slow’, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, ‘whose time never runs out’. This movement is for cello and piano. VI. "Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes" (“Dance of Wrath, for the Seven Trumpets”). Messiaen writes: “Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Listen especially to all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.” VII. "Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps" (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Announcing the End of Time”). Messiaen writes: “Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout co-penetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!” This movement also features all four instruments. VIII. "Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus" (“Praise for the Immortality of Jesus”). Messiaen writes: “Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.” This final movement is for violin and piano.
This new recording by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble comes along at a time when this music seems especially relevant as we look around us and consider the toll of the pandemic and the rising threats of racism, anti-semitism, voter suppression, distrust of science, scapegoating, and so on so forth. Sigh… This is an ominous time; perhaps some visionary music might be what we need. In any event, I had hoped to do a direct comparison of the new Avie release to the venerable Tashi recording, but Serkin and friends seem to have disappeared (temporarily, I hope) somewhere in a hidden pile of CDs somewhere in the chaos of my collection (and to make things worse, the Tashi CD appears to be out of print, although it can be streamed, thank goodness) so instead I pulled out another live recording for comparison, one of those BBC Music Magazine discs featuring an all-star cast of Michael Collins (clarinet), Isabelle van Keulen (cello), Paul Watkins (cello), and Lars Vogt (piano). Without going into a lot of detail, let me simply say that both musically and sonically, although I might have had a slight preference for the BBC production (Michael Collins is hard to beat when it comes to clarinet tone), the new Avie release is certainly of excellent quality, communicating the both the other-worldliness and raw immediacy that are both prominent features of Messiaen’s remarkable music. As a bonus, the Left Coast disc concludes with a performance of Kurt Rohde’s One Wing, a brief composition for violin and piano that seems to fit in perfectly after the final movement of the Messiaen, which was also for violin and piano. Especially effective is the way Rohde concludes the piece, which is to say, most inconclusively, leaving the listener to question and contemplate. You can enjoy a video performance of One Wing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Uc_eONtA8A
Lonely Shadows: Dominik Wania, piano. ECM 2686 086 9583.
John Robertson: Virtuosity. Concerto for Clarinet and Strings; Hinemoa & Tutanekai; Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra; Symphony No. 3. Mihail Zhivkov, clarinet; Kremera Acheva, flute; Fernando Serrano Montoya, trumpet; Anthony Armoré, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. (Navona NV6223).
John Robertson: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5; Meditation: In Flanders Fields. Anthony Armoré, Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. (Navona NV6325).
th century. Truly, this is a work that deserves wider exposure, not only as a recording, but in the concert hall.