A Memorable Performance of Quatuor pour le fin de temps

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen and Schubert: Janine Jansen (violin), Lucas Debargue (piano), Torleif Thedéen (cello), Martin Fröst (clarinet), Wigmore Hall, London, 2.6.2107. (AS)

Messiaen – Thème et Variations; Quatuor pour le fin de temp

Schubert – Fantasy in C, D934

Messiaen’s Thème et Variations is perhaps one of the composer’s lesser-known works. It was written for his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos, as a wedding present, and first performed by her in November 1932. As one would expect, there is an affecting tenderness in the nature of the theme itself, and the contrasting variations which follow were no doubt designed to show off Delbos’ skills as a performer. At about ten minutes in length, it is a good example of the Messiaen’s early work in which Debussyan elements in his writing are already being subsumed within the emergence of his recognisably individual style.

It was soon apparent why Janine Jansen is now regarded as one of the world’s leading violinists. Her playing had extraordinary beauty of tone and elegance of phrase, and in the more extrovert variations she displayed almost nonchalant brilliance.

Schubert’s works for violin and piano are not generally regarded as his most significant compositions, and the Fantasy in C needs sympathetic exponents in performance. Once again Jansen’s playing fulfilled all necessary requirements – at least when it could be heard adequately. There is a tendency in the Wigmore Hall for pianists to misjudge the exceptional carrying power of the acoustics, and at many points in this work Debargue’s playing was simply too coarse and too loud. How frustrating it was sometimes to see Jansen’s elegant bowing but only to hear the banging of the piano keys.

Fortunately the balance was better in Messiaen’s masterly Quatuor pour le fin de temps, written for violin, cello, clarinet and piano during the period in 1940 when he was being held in a German prisoner of war camp. But even here there were a few passages featuring solo violin and solo cello which disappeared under Debargue’s over-enthusiastic playing. Each string and wind player showed masterful performing qualities: in ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ Martin Fröst’s playing was extraordinary in its power and dramatic intensity; in ‘Louange à l’éternité de Jésus’ Toleif Thedéen projected his solo in a concentrated, almost trance-like state of heightened communication, and once more Jansen’s playing was wondrous in its beauty of execution, particularly in the final ‘Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus’, with the violin climbing to the top of its range in expression of “the ascension of Jesus-the-man to his God”. A memorable performance, even if it was slightly flawed by the contribution of the pianist.

Alan Sanders

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