As most readers probably know, 2008 is the Olivier Messiaen year, and we will be reviewing as many new CDs (and DVDs) of his music as we can between now and the 100th anniversary of his birth, on December 10. The Quatuor pour la fin du temps, composed in 1940 during Messiaen's internment in a prisoner-of-war camp, is likely his best-known work, already recorded in some two dozen versions. (Another new version, by the Hebrides Ensemble but so far unknown to me, has also just been released.) Written relatively early in Messiaen's career, the Quatuor is both clearly in the composer's mature voice -- Catholic, mystical, ethnomusicological, liturgical, ornithological -- and yet one of the more accessible pieces in an oeuvre that can be elusive.
Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Trio Wanderer, P. Moraguès
(released July 8, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901987
The leading version selected by most careful listeners is that by the recently reunited Tashi ensemble, including the young Peter Serkin and Richard Stoltzmann (RCA), and there is much to recommend it. The others to be admired have obvious strong points, such as particularly good pianists: the leading Messiaen interpreter, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Accord); the composer's widow, Yvonne Loriod (EMI); Daniel Barenboim (DG); and the composer's own recording (Accord, harder to find). The two recent releases under review here have the additional benefit of having been made since the publication of the ground-breaking study of the quartet's history by Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet, in 2003 (but see also Nigel Simeone's review in the Musical Times, which includes a meticulous fact-checking of the book).
R. Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet
Trio Wanderer, past winners of the ARD Competition in Munich, are joined here by the excellent Paul Moraguès, principal clarinetist of the Orchestre de Paris (and one-time teacher of Rebecca Rischin, who teaches the clarinet at Ohio University). The performance is expansive (total time of 51'25"), not afraid of the possible longueurs in the ecstatic details of many movements. In particular, their fifth movement ("Louange à l'Eternité de Jésus") emphasizes the eternity, appearing to take literally the marking Messiaen gave to it, "Infiniment lent, extatique" (an ecstatic and infinitely slow 10'48"). They round the disc out with a straightforward reading of one of Messiaen's few other chamber works, the Thème et variations for violin and piano, a love song offered to his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos.
This new English recording of the Quatuor unites the Gould Piano Trio with clarinetist Robert Plane. Their reading of the work is much more concise, at a total time of 48'32". Several of the movement timings are very close to those of Trio Wanderer, but the Gould Trio takes the angel's vocalise and rainbow halo movements in about a minute less each, with almost two minutes less for the eternity of Jesus in the fifth movement (their tempo has the piano's sixteenth notes at about a metronome marking of 50, sometimes faster -- when Messiaen indicated the tempo at about 44). Messiaen left brief descriptions of each movement in his program notes, saying that the quotation from Apocalypse indicated that the "end of time" was the abolition of the past and future, returning all of creation to the eternal present of God's existence outside time. It is a difficult theological concept that Beatrice tried to explain to Dante in Paradise (see the quotation below), and this performance seems to cheat the sense of eternity in Messiaen's unfolding repetitions.
Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Gould Piano Trio, R. Plane
(released July 29, 2008)
Chandos CHAN 10480
The clarinet, piano, and cello are about equal in quality between these two recordings, but Lucy Gould's violin on this disc is a notch or two less pure and searing in tone than Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian's. Pianist Benjamin Frith gives a subtle touch by rendering the piano chords of the final movement as slightly demarcated trochees, accenting the first of each pair but not letting the second fade too much into the background. Although Gould and Frith's take on the Thème et variations here is less pleasing, the Chandos disc is made of greater interest because it opens with the first-ever recording of Messiaen's own piano arrangement of his orchestral work Les offrandes oubliées. Frith plays it with symphonic scope and a broad sense of color.
Beatrice and Dante in Paradiso, engraving by Gustave Doré
"In His eternity, beyond time, beyond
any other limit, as it pleased Him,
in these new loves, Eternal Love unfolded.
Nor, before then, did He rest in torpor,
for until God moved upon these waters
there existed no 'before', there was no 'after'.
Form and matter, conjoined and separate,
came into being without defect,
shot like three arrows from a three-stringed bow.
And, as a ray shines right through glass, amber,
or crystal, so that between its presence
and its shining there is no lapse of time,
just so did the threefold creation flash --
with no intervals in its beginning --
from its Lord into being, all at once."
-- Beatrice tries to explain God's creation of the angels, before time began (Dante, Paradiso, Canto 29, trans. Robert Hollander)