Messiaen’s Visionary Quartet Enthrals at King’s Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen:Members of the London Sinfonietta (Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Alexandra Wood (violin), Oliver Coates (cello), John Constable (piano), Hall One, Kings Place, London, 21.2.2014 (MB)

Préludes: ‘La Colombe’ and ‘Plainte calme’
Thème et Variations
Quatuor pour la fin du temps

I had not realised that Kings Place’s current ‘Chamber Classics Unwrapped’ series had found its repertoire by virtue of a public vote. Still more surprising was the fact that such a poll had resulted in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time coming in at number eleven. But then, I suppose that those likely to participate in such an exercise are probably not members of the Katherine Jenkins fan club. At any rate, it was a welcome opportunity to hear this extraordinary work, here given a degree of context in being prefaced by a little more Messiaen.

Two of the piano Préludes received rather wooden performances by John Constable – surprisingly so, given his record as pianist in the London Sinfonietta. ‘La Colombe’ never really took flight; as with ‘Plainte calme’, one heard the notes, and had a sense of how they might otherwise be despatched, but little more. Debussy’s influence nevertheless shone through, though how could it not? At any rate, the great leap forward to his mature style would be indicated in retrospect. The Thème et Variations fared somewhat better, gaining freedom as the performance progressed, though Alexandra Wood’s violin was not always in tune with the piano. We were reminded, though, quite how much Messiaen owed to Franck, not only in his organ works. And ultimately, a sense of the ecstatic, later to be more fully, theologically developed, was achieved.

Ensemble was undoubtedly strengthened by the arrival of Mark can de Wiel and Oliver Coates for the Quartet. Although the music does not ever really sound ‘like’ Schoenberg, I could not help but be put in mind from time to time of the ever-versatile Pierrot ensemble, here of course minus the flute, but given the varying combinations nestling itself in the musical subconscious. From the opening ‘Liturgie de cristal’ one is here in unmistakeable Messiaen territory, both in terms of eschatology and musical process – though for him, and indeed for us, they are one and the same. Coates’s cello and Constable’s piano offered reassuring irregular regularity of pulse, above which the birds could – and did – sing. Pitch repeated and rhythm rotated, showing once again how much ‘total serialism’ owed to the composer who, in a very strong sense, was its founding father. So was the scene set for the Angel’s announcement of the End of Time, angelic power and what might just have been the sweetness – ‘blue-orange’ – of the Beatific Vision juxtaposed so as somehow to make sense of each other. Van de Wiel’s ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ was a tour de force, but far more than that: musical sense was ever present, likewise the birds’ heavenly opposition to the abyss.

Following the ‘Intermède’, almost charming in a more conventionally Gallic sense, and yet reminding us, through thematic recollection, of its pivotal role, the Word appeared in the beginning of ‘Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus’. Rearranged though it may be from an earlier work for six (!) ondes Martenots for the 1937 Paris Exposition, its ecstatic manner shone through, Coates’s cello reverent and possessed of seemingly endless reserves of bow. Time shaded almost into eternity, ‘infiniment lent, extatique’. The ensuing ‘Danse de la fureur’ reinstated the primacy of rhythm as the apocalyptic seven trumpets were evoked. All players ensured once again that crucial irregular regularity, without which the music would have degenerated into nonsense. The climax duly struck terror into our hearts. With the ‘Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps,’ there was achieved a proper sense of summation of what had gone before, and yet hearing, perhaps even sighting, of something new through the tangle of rainbows. With the closing ‘Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus,’ Wood and Constable beautifully, movingly, brought Messiaen’s earlier organ Diptyque into what seemed in retrospect as though it should always have been its home. Paradise, just maybe, was glimpsed through the Word made flesh.

Mark Berry