Messiaen Work Creates Meditative Web of Sound

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (6) – Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps: Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Antje Weithaas (violin), Alban Gerhardt (cello), Steven Osborne (piano),  Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 11.8.2014 (SRT)


It may have been only intermittently present since the opening concert on Friday night, but this year’s Festival theme of culture and conflict burst unmissably onto the scene with this performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The circumstances of this work’s composition would be enough on their own to make it noteworthy in the history of 20th Century music, let alone to fit with Jonathan Mills’ festival theme. Messiaen wrote it while a prisoner at Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, about 70 miles east of Dresden. It’s still a mind-boggling story of the triumph of the human spirit (or of the composer’s deeply held Catholic faith, depending on your point of view) and the music he produced is all the more powerful given its context.

But what exactly is the “end of time” that the composer refers to in the title? Ostensibly it’s a reference to the passage in Revelation when the Angel of the Apocalypse declares that “there shall be no more time”, and this gave the composer a rough pictorial framework for the work. However, as Roger Nichols points out in his programme note for this concert, it is perhaps in the world of time that Messiaen’s contribution to the development of 20th century music is greatest and, listening to this extraordinary music unfolding in the resonant acoustic of Greyfriars Kirk, it was this very timelessness that struck me most forcibly.  Sure, there is rhythmic energy aplenty, most notably in the 4th movement Scherzo, or the violent passages in the 7th movement that depict the cluster of rainbows that surround the angel’s head, but those passages are rare.

More characteristic is Messiaen’s ability to spin a long, long line of music that seems to ignore bar lines, sometimes even pulses, altogether. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the frequent solo passages, especially those for cello in the 5th movement and violin in the 8th movement, both explicit meditations on the timelessness of Jesus. Both Alban Gerhardt and Antje Weithaas seemed to step out of themselves and their environment to bring us a seamless web of music that felt like it was never going to end; timeless, despite the constant pulse maintained by Steven Osborne’s piano line throbbing underneath. Somehow, direction didn’t seem to matter (who needs a cadence, anyway?), and the audience seemed to lose itself in the web of sound that we being spun around it: you could have heard a pin drop, and there was a long silence before the applause began at the end.

This rhapsodic sense of unfolding didn’t harm the more strident passages, but perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was the unaccompanied 3rd movement, Abyss of the Birds, played with astounding colour by Jörg Widmann on the clarinet. This exemplified that sense of timelessness and, in this abyss that seemed bottomless it’s hard to know whether to give more praise to Widmann’s virtuosic leaps and flicks or to the way he could imbue a single note with a vast palette of colour. This was music as true meditation, an experience not to be forgotten; and the spacious 17th century church seemed a remarkably appropriate place for it.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city.  For full details click here.


Simon Thompson

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