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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) [50:31]
Thème et Variations for Violin and Piano [10:29]
Trio Wanderer, Pascal Moraguès (clar)
rec. Salle de musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, July 2007
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC901987 [62:27]
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps [43:35]
Thème et Variations for Violin and Piano (1932) [10:42]
Piece for Piano and String Quartet (1991) [3:16]
Fantasie for Violin and Piano (1933) [8:14]
Le merle noir (1951) [6:06]
Hebrides Ensemble: Maximiliano Martin (clarinet), Philip Moore (piano), Catherine Marwood (viola), Sarah Bevan-Baker (violin), Alexander Janiczek (violin), William
Conway (cello), Rosemary Elliot (flute)
rec. St Mary's Church, Haddington, 17-20 March 2007
LINN CKD314 [73:41]
 

 

 

 


 

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) [44:15]
Fantaisie (1930) [8:59], Le merle noir (1952) [6:24]
Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (1991) [3:07]
Morceau de lecture à vue * (1934) [1:59]
Matthew Schellhorn (piano); Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London
rec. Suffolk, 17-19 February 2008. DDD
*world premiere recording
SIGNUM SIGCD126 [66:38]
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps [48:32]
Thème et Variations for Violin and Piano (1932) [10:09]
Les offrandes oubliées (1930) [8:38]
Gould Piano Trio, Robert Plane (clarinet)
Champs Hill, West Sussex, 2-3  June 2007
CHANDOS CHAN10480 [67:11]

Experience Classicsonline

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is probably the composer’s most famous work. Masterpiece though it is, it owes at least some of that fame to its story of origin. It is, now at least, also his most often recorded work. Seven new versions have been added this year alone, and five more re-issued.
 
It is constructed in eight movements of which the first (Liturgie de cristal), second (Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps / for the Angel who announced the end of time), sixth (Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes / Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets), and seventh (Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps / Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time) are for the full quartet of clarinet, piano, violin and cello. The third (Abîme des oiseaux / Abyss of birds) is a 7 to 11 minute long clarinet solo, the fourth (Intermède) an interlude that excludes the piano, the fifth (Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus / Eulogy to the eternity of Jesus), a miniature cello sonata lasting anywhere from 7:20 to 11 minutes; the finale (Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus / Eulogy to the immortality of Jesus) a six and a half to nine minute long violin and piano fantasy.
 
The first recording I’ve had of the quartet has left an emotional footprint in my ear that is difficult to remove: Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, and Richard Stoltzman (RCA, 1976) are indelibly imbued as “the” Quartet for the End of Time. But the variety of interpretations now available is most pleasing in and of itself – from the impossibly slow Trio Wanderer (ARD Competition winner) with Pascal Moragués (Harmonia Mundi) to the sinewy, individualistically-voiced Hebrides Ensemble (Linn) there is something for every taste.
 
The violinist of the Hebrides Ensemble pecks his violin interjections out of the clarinet-piano background of Liturgie de cristal most bird-like, but I love the serene distance the strings of the Houston Chamber Players (Koch) offer – an awakening of a touching, gentle kind, just as Messiaen stipulates (“Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds”). Eduar Brunner (Trio Fontenay, Harmonia Mundi—musique d’abord) has the most distinctive clarinet tone here – very distant, hollow, thinner and not as velvety as Moragués’ (Trio Wanderer).
 
A little too much air - this ‘slipping the clutch’ kind-of sound - is present in the exclamatory phrase of the Vocalise with the clarinetists of the Hebrides Ensemble and the deliberate Houston Chamber Players. Barnaby Robson (Schellhorn and Philharmonia Orchestra Soloists, Signum Classics), Robert Plane (Gould Trio, Chandos), and Pascal Moragués’ show how it’s made to evoke a powerful angel announcing the end of time, with Plane offering the most vigor without ugliness of tone and Moragués the greatest control and beauty. Jean-Louis Sajot (on a 2006 Calliope recording) is somewhere in between, Brunner flawless but recessed.
 
Differences are very pronounced in the sixth movement Danse de la fureur: Too much reverb makes the Calliope production hazy, Isserlis and Co (Decca) as well as the Hebrides Ensemble emphasize the strings, the Houston Chamber Players are very distant and therefore lack immediacy and attack, Schellhorn and Co. are quick, with nice balance and sound but are rhythmically not as pointed as Fontenay/Brunner or Wanderer/Moragués - again the most deliberate here.
 
Harmonia Mundi gives the Trio Wanderer a very immediate sound making the players acutely present - beyond the music, even: several times while listening I thought that subtle extraneous noises came from somewhere else in the house. The Trio gives us the most distinctive among the new readings. No other performance, not even Manuel Fischer-Dieskau’s (EMI) can boast such a velvety, smooth clarinet sound - not that a reedy, jazzy sound – Stoltzman comes to mind – can’t be as, or more, desirable in this work. They work out every legato phrase with extra care, stretching movements to unheard-of lengths. No other ensemble needs over 50 minutes for the Quartet. This adds beauty, it adds a simmering passion, but it saps energy too. The Houston Symphony Chamber Players on the older (1999) Koch recording also take their time, especially David Peck in the clarinet solo of the second movement where he takes 10 minutes and 40 seconds; this compared to Eduard Brunner’s 6 minutes and 21 seconds or the less than 7 minutes the Hebrides’ Maximiliano Martín takes. The birds, so evocative in the Houston Players’ first movement, are a bit drowsy here.
 
Compared to all that ethereal slowness, the Hebrides’ players can sound like race-horses. They give the work a shot of adrenalin and place it back in the prison camp whence it came. It may not be an escapist vision of the end of time anymore, but with very fine individual contributions and offering reference sound quality - in regular stereo and SACD stereo; I’ve not listened to it in SACD surround - it is the most interesting new release of the lot, and the perfect complement to the Trio Wanderer. The Calliope recording is, unfortunately, too resonant for Intermède and Danse de la fureur, some unintrusive ambient noise is audible in the very touching fifth movement. Decca’s (out of print) all-star recording with Stephen Isserlis, Josh Bell, Olli Mustonen and Michael Collins will be reissued in an upcoming Decca Box - itself most notable for Chailly’s Turangalîla, but maybe not intended for the US market. It’s fine, but not worth going through much trouble finding, with so many other versions available.
 
The Matthew Schellhorn and Gould Piano Trio recordings all have their strong elements -  interesting couplings, both, and I particularly like Benjamin Frith’s pianism on the latter. Ultimately they don’t stand out enough to be chosen over the Stoltzman classic or one of EMI’s re-issues of the Yvonne Loriod / Christoph Poppen / M. Fischer-Dieskau / Wolfgang Meyer combo. The Houston/Christoph Eschenbach recording, finally, I’d not want to miss for the wonderful effects that its slightly cavernous acoustic brings to most movements of the work. It’s like listening to the quartet in a large aviary.
 
Jens F. Laurson

See also:
- a review of the Signum disc by Anne Ozorio
- an article on Messiaen by Julie Williams
- an index of all reviews of the Quatuor on Musicweb
 


 


 


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