Young Musicians Negotiate Messiaen with Conviction and Panache

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Petrie, Messiaen: Glendower Quartet (Emily Dellit, violin; Hannah Morgan, clarinet; William Imbert, cello; Thomas Besnard, piano), Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 18.5.2014.

Petrie, Transfigurations in Commemoration of the Great War
Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du Temps

It is striking how often, in musical history as in the wider patterns of history, chance circumstances, not necessarily obviously favourable, have produced immediate effects of considerable importance and have even generated a tradition of a kind. A remarkable instance of this kind is provided by Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. It was written during Messiaen’s imprisonment in Stalag VII A near Gorlitz, east of Dresden (now Zgorzelec in Poland). Among his fellow prisoners there were the violinist Jean le Boulaire, the cellist Étienne Pasquier and the clarinettist Henri Akoka. Akoka and Boulaire had been allowed to keep their instruments. Pasquier had been given a battered cello, minus one string. Akoka and Messiaen had met earlier in a German holding camp near Nancy, and Messiaen had written a solo piece for the clarinettist (which was later to become the third movement of the Quatuor). In Stalag VII A, Messiaen wrote a trio for the three instrumentalists, having been provided with paper and pencil through the good offices of Carl-Albert Brüll, a Belgian prison guard.  Materials from this trio were added to when Messiaen began to conceive a piano part for the work (though at the time no piano was available in the camp) for himself to play. A piano (an upright of dubious tuning) did eventually become available and the first performance of the Quatuor was given in the camp on January 15, 1941.

The combination of violin, clarinet, cello and piano was not entirely unprecedented. There are one of two nineteenth century works for such an ensemble, and Hindemith published a Quartet for these four instruments in 1938. But it was not such precedents, but rather the combination of circumstances, personal and instrumental, that led Messiaen to write for such forces. And since his Quatuor has been widely known, it has become the reference point (far more than any of its predecessors) for any later composer writing for the same group of instruments. This was audibly true with regard to the other work played on this occasion, Christopher Petrie’s Transfigurations in Commemoration of the Great War, a work commissioned for this concert and here receiving its first performance (in circumstances very different from those – outside, in the rain, in a prison camp – that Messiaen’s work had its premiere).

With all respect to the promising young Welsh composer (born 1987), it was Messaien’s extraordinary work which was the main focus of interest. Surely the last century’s greatest single piece of chamber music, the Quatuor is simultaneously visceral and sophisticated, complex and primal, a non-dogmatic affirmation of faith produced in appalling circumstances. The range of colours Messiaen extracts from his limited resources is remarkable, his handling of rhythm utterly fascinating. Take, for example, the way in which, in the first movement of the work, ‘Liturgie de cristal’, we hear two birdsong melodies, played by violin and clarinet, above two distinct rhythmic patterns played by piano and cello, one of them a complex pattern derived from Indian music). Such a juxtaposition, characteristic of much in the Quatuor, speaks simultaneously of ‘nature’ observed and rich artificiality. It is as well to remember that Messiaen somewhere (I confess that I can’t remember exactly where) described birds as “little prophets of immaterial joy”; he would probably have been in agreement with the advice given by Richard of St. Victor: “In avibus intellige studia spiritualia, in animalibus exercitia corporalia”, which Ezra Pound translated as follows: “Watch birds to understand how spiritual things move, animals to understand physical motion”.

Such complexities, and the manner in which everything in the work is an expression of the composer’s profound Catholic faith, means that this is music in which performers have to draw deeply on their resources, not just technically but also in terms of the imaginative and the spiritual, the philosophical and the emotional. This is true, of course, of all ‘great’ music, but the particular demands of this quartet are surely sui generis. This was my first encounter with the Glendower Quartet (a development or offshoot of the Glendower Duo, made up of Hannah Morgan and Thomas Besnard, which has given successful concerts across the UK and Europe) and seeing the relative youthfulness of all four members of the ensemble, it was hard not to wonder whether they would be able to bring enough life-lived, as it were, to bear on this music, to bring to their performance enough human resources (in the broadest sense), rather than  mere technique so as to do the work justice. And, indeed, there was something just a little tentative about the opening of the Glendower’s reading of the work, an uncertainty as to the interconnections of the four strands in the musical structure of the first movement; perhaps the underlying sensed of the liturgical was less forcefully present than it should ideally be.  But things soon settled down as all four members of the group effectively came together in the articulation of the music, and the overall sound became more authoritative, the playing more confident. The second movement, ‘Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’, was imbued with a profound sense of meaning and purpose, the members of the ensemble wholly as one in their work. The playing communicated a rich and detailed sense of how Messiaen’s music juxtaposes (though such a verb doesn’t do justice to the music’s magical integration) the worlds of Time and Eternity, earthly and heavenly, movement and stillness. Hanna Morgan was an excellent soloist in the third movement, ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, producing an expressive account of Messiaen’s vision of the abyss of time and the birds who articulate the human aspiration towards a world beyond time, her phrasing, control of dynamics and transitions of tempo, all perfectly judged and effected with such an air of scored music so thoroughly inhabited, that one almost experienced it as a kind of sublime improvisation. The ‘Intermède’ allows a drop in the level of intensity, in its scherzo for clarinet and strings and the movement was played with appropriate lightness of touch and a degree of repose.  ‘Louange â l’Éternité de Jésus’ is both hieratic and intimate, the personal experience of prayer articulated, to my mind, as well here as in any music I know; the playing of William Imbert (sensitively supported by Thomas Besnard) movingly and beautifully communicating that sense of prayer defined in lines by George Herbert (no Catholic, but an Anglican priest who understood much about both prayer and music): “Gods breath in man returning to its birth … The six-daies world-transposing in an houre”. In the ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’, though the unison writing was played with crisp exactitude, there wasn’t quite that sense of  the “music of stone, formidable and resounding granite … purple rage, icy ecstasy” of which Messiaen wrote in the preface to his score. The Glendower’s performance of ‘Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’, on the other hand, was full of the required delicacy and translucent radiance and an impressive fluidity of line and colour. This was a memorable reading of powerfully beautiful music. The closing movement, ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ is for violin and piano, where the earlier movement of the same title (Movement V) was for cello and piano. Comparing the two one hears in this second and closing act of praise a more complete sense of Christ’s humanity, of the perfect coming together of the worlds of Time and Eternity. The music’s still sublimity, which hovers on the boundary of the two worlds, was gloriously realised by Emily Dellit and Thomas Besnard (the latter’s playing, though he gets no solo, confirming just how important the role of the pianist is in a successful performance of the Quatuor). It brought to a tender and yet powerful close a fine performance (for all my slight reservations above, with regard to the first and sixth movements) of this remarkable work. Anyone hearing it who wasn’t already aware of its greatness, could surely not have remained in ignorance of the work’s power and beauty after hearing the Glendower’s performance.

 Messiaen’s Quatuor makes a daunting partner for any other chamber work (especially one for the same combination of instruments) receiving its premiere. It would be dishonest of me to say that Christopher Petrie’s Transfigurations in Commemoration of the Great War, which opened the concert, wasn’t, inevitably, overshadowed by Messiaen’s masterpiece.  But that isn’t to say it wasn’t without interest (and the comparison is an unfair one, of course). It is described by its composer as a work of collage, in which he “steals tiny musical cells” from “war-related music” from other composers, including Haydn, Shostakovich and Bob Dylan. These ‘cells’ are so small and so altered that, as Petrie told the audience, they are “unrecognisable”. That largely being so (I thought a recognised a borrowing from Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli at one point), I am not sure that collage is a very good word to describe what is going on. Collage, as used by, say, Picasso and Braque, seems to assume that the viewer will recognise the objects used, so as to appreciate the ironies, associations, etc, set up by the resulting associations. I write this, I suppose, out of a spirit of pedantry, certainly not out of any desire to complain about Petrie’s creative procedure. His Transfigurations (surely a better word to describe the process and, incidentally, a word Messiaen uses about his own music more than once – though with theological overtones that Petrie wouldn’t, I suspect, deem appropriate to his music) lasts some 16 minutes or so and is in four sections or mini-movements, the first three played without a break. It incorporates some unconventional sounds through the placing of rubber balls on the piano strings. This helped, for example, to give a resonantly ominous quality to the very slow opening passage of the work; in the first section fragments of melody developed into longer lines for the clarinet, supported by more conventional use of the keyboard. A faster second section incorporated some stabbing chords on the cello which made me think of Wilfred Owen’s “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” and “their hasty orisons” (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’). As this section developed it seemed to express the pain and lamentation of loss. The fragmentary opening of the third section seemed (on this single hearing) to have affinities with the material of the first section and then evolved into a passage dominated by some low, mournful writing for the cello. In the fourth section, which opened with some fine writing for the solo violin, Thomas Besnard was required to beat the piano strings with the rubber balls, the whole resulting in some intriguing textures. Without (I hope) being unkind to Petrie, his piece intrigued and interested, where Messiaen’s moves one deeply – perhaps because Petrie transfigures other people’s music, where his great predecessor was transfiguring a horrendous situation in a manner packed with philosophical, theological and emotional significance.

 This was the last concert in the 2014 series of concerts organised by Cwpanaur, their programme has included accomplished performances of, amongst other things, quartets by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bartok and Cardiff-based composer Peter Reynolds, wind serenades by Strauss and Mozart, piano trios by Beethoven and Shostakovich and a song recital by Emma Kirkby. Ill-health and other commitments have prevented my attending / reviewing all of the year’s concerts, but I strongly wish to record my sense of the importance of the work undertaken by the volunteers who run an organisation such as Cwpanaur. Without such work the the biggest gap in the musical life of Cardiff and many another a city would be, precisely, in the realm of chamber music, never likely to appeal (save very exceptionally) to commercial promoters or those operating large concert halls. And yet, it is in the masterpieces of the chamber repertoire that some of the greatest and most profound of all music is to be heard. Having, the night before this concert heard the Coull Quartet play Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich in Sweansea, I am tempted to enquire, no doubts somewhat heretically, do we really need all those expensive orchestras?

Glyn Pursglove



Leave a Comment