Messiaen’s transcendent quartet is the people’s choice for Rembrandt Chamber Players

Mon Dec 07, 2009 at 11:38 pm

By Dennis Polkow

 
Olivier Messiaen was one of the most innovative and influential composers of the 20th century; a master teacher who counted Stockhausen and Boulez as his students, among others; an ornithologist who studied and imitated the musical properties of birds, and a Roman Catholic mystic who played the organ at Trinity in Paris nearly every Sunday from 1931 until his death in 1992.

Messiaen left an aural soundtrack for his unusual faith, literal icons of sonority that are rapturous doorways to the sacred. But you don’t have to be religious to appreciate them as the great art that they are, and these pieces fail to leave even a die-hard atheist such as his former student Boulez unmoved.

Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time), written in 1940 when Messiaen was an inmate in a Nazi prisoner of war camp and premiered there on a freezing January night, is a piece brimming with the triumph of the human spirit. The work uses a mystical and ethereal interpretation of the biblical apocalypse as its starting point but looks beyond war, suffering — and indeed, all of human time and space — to conceive of an “end” that transcends all earthly bounds.

Because a violinist, a clarinetist and a cellist were fellow prisoners in the camp, these are the instruments that Messiaen used to realize his vision, with himself taking the piano part in its initial performance for his fellow prisoners and their captors.

In spoken remarks preceding the Rembrandt Chamber Players performance Sunday night in Evanston, clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom announced that the quartet is the most requested work that Rembrandt subscribers wanted to hear in a survey last year “and thus, this being the ensemble’s 20th anniversary season,” he said, taking a deep breath, “here it is.”

Things got off to a rough start during Liturgie de cristal (“Liturgy of crystal”) with Barbara Haffner’s cello barely audible and the ensemble not in proper syncopation with David Schrader’s piano, which became overly rhythmic to compensate.

The most ethereal movement was the Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of the birds”), Messiaen’s first-ever direct attempt to evoke birdcalls in musical form. Unlike Bela Bartok, who actually recorded Transylvanian peasants’ folksongs on Edison cylinders, Messiaen never used a recorder, but only his ear and a pen to “transcribe” bird song via musical notation. Bloom’s multiphonic- filled clarinet solo wonderfully evoked the effect that Messiaen had in mind: the birds in this case representing the opposite of time.

In another context perhaps Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude, Récitatif et Variations might have worked, but after an hour of Messiaen, the short and schmaltzy work came across as absurdly trivial. Both students of Paul Dukas, Messiaen chose to forge forward whereas Duruflé nostalgically looks back to the French Romantic past. One suspects that the piece — a rarity in that it features a solo role for viola alongside flute and piano — would have been far better served as an appetizer to the Messiaen than as a dessert that didn’t go with the preceding full meal.

By contrast, the two Baroque pieces that closed out the evening worked well in the order that they were heard. Telemann’s Tafelmusik  Quartet in D minor – played here with violin, flute and oboe with bass and harpsichord as continuo — was a lively example of a Baroque instrumental suite, followed by a revolutionary work of Bach’s, the First Harpsichord Concerto in D Major (BWV 1052), the first known work to fully spotlight a keyboard instrument in a solo role with orchestra.

David Schrader was in his element not only performing Bach’s florid runs as if they were child’s play, but as he had all evening, virtually conducting the piece from the keyboard with carefully placed glances.

This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Merit School of Music’s Gottlieb Hall, 38 S. Peoria, Chicago; 312- 360-3145. www.rembrandtchamberplayers.org

 

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