LIVE from London’s Messiaen masterclass in creating a technicolour canvas from a mere four instruments.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams (arr. Drayton), Messiaen, LIVE from London Summer 2021 [3] – Angel of the Apocalypse: Julian Bliss (clarinet), Jack Liebeck (violin), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Katya Apekisheva (piano), VOCES8. Streamed from the VOCES8 Centre, London, 17.7.2021. (CC)

Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending (arr. Drayton)

MessiaenQuatuor pour le fin du temps

The VOCES8 concerts always offer a cornucopia of extras – perhaps in this case, the pre-concert introduction by Stephen Johnson, including multiple music examples from the performers, was particularly valuable. Eloquent, beautifully expressing the ambiguities of Messiaen’s music, its power and the astonishing circumstances of its composition (composed while a Prisoner of War), the work’s circumstances

Fascinating to have an insightful introduction from Stephen Johnson on the composer, not least his comments on how Messiaen works with our experience of time; and, by extension of this, his very individual rhythmic processes. it includes substantial excerpts (as is necessary given the subject matter) – including from the final ‘Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus’. With Johnson reporting on the truly extraordinary background of the piece, and the enforced instrumentation through circumstance. Tracing thematic correspondences was another aspect of this multi-faceted, excellent introduction, as was, inevitably, ‘God’s musicians’, the birds.

VOCES8 and Jack Liebeck (violin)

The concert begins with Paul Drayton’s arrangement for violin and choir (VOCES8) of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Jack Liebeck, whose coupling of Brahms and Schoenberg concertos on Orchid Classic with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay was so special, performs with a superb sound, beautifully grainy lower down, transparent and pure high up against the beautifully soft chordal texture of VOCES8. And how beautiful that the text they sing is from George Meredith’s ‘The Lark Ascending’. The purity of VOCES8’s sound is perfect for Vaughan Williams, with his English Pastoral resonances of times past – his music seems to speak directly to something ancient within us. Liebeck’s extreme high register is simply beautiful, his final journeys into the etheric hanging memorably int the air.

A great idea to have Messiaen’s quotations from the Bible on-screen prior to the performance. And how suspended the initial ‘Liturgie de cristal’ (Crystal Liturgy) sounded, the uniform, restrained dynamic presenting the musical surface in aspic. The shifting contributions of the instrumentalists against the slowly throbbing piano presented a post-Impressionist kaleidoscope. The full quartet is also used for the ‘Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’ (Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time) – a reminder of the place of the angelic host in Messiaen’s religious worldview – beings of huge power, awesome in the true meaning of the word while the impossibly long melodies of the central section (Birtwistle wasn’t the first to pen an ‘endless melody’!) painted a positively floating picture of Heaven. How perfectly Liebeck and Sheku Kanneh-Mason worked on these lines, in perfect rhythmic unison; how utterly dismissive as the close, Apekisheva finding a touch perhaps inspired by the crystal of the first movement,

The next movement, ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ (Abyss of the birds) is a long clarinet solo. How lucky we are to have Julian Bliss playing this, his breath control stunning. It was hard to tell where notes ended and silence began – but that silence, very much part of Messiaen’s vocabulary, was connective, itself saturated by the sounds around it. Daring to stretch the silences, starting notes from absolutely nothing, this was stunning clarinet playing, agile and avian when required. But it was the import of the slowly evolving lines that remains most in the memory.

If ever a scherzo was needed, it was after that. ‘Intermède,’ a trio for violin, clarinet and cello often in octaves and rhythmic unison. The Quatuor is a piece of opposites, this movement constitutes the animated, exterior world; the interior world is heard in the long ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ (Praise to the eternity of Jesus) which starts as if a cello solo to balance the clarinet the other side of the scherzo before a slowly pulsating piano joins in. A long song without words marked ‘infinitely slow’ and ‘ecstatic’. Kanneh-Mason and Apekishava worked beautifully together as a chamber music partnership – certainly one I would like to hear more of! The way Kanneh-Mason sustained of the line over such a broad canvas was impressive indeed.

The sixth movement brings with it seven trumpets (‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ / Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets). Perhaps the church acoustic blurred the line somewhat – Messiaen described this as ‘music of stone, formidable granite sound’. But how beautifully blanched the music sounded when the dynamic drops, and how the contours softened magically. The concentration required here is huge, to maintain accuracy in octaves at such speed – remarkable.

If solace is possible, it is through the cello song (with piano) of ‘Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps’ (Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time). With his synaesthesia, the idea of a complete rainbow spectrum surely is made for Messiaen; yet even here there are ‘swords of fire’, jagged yet ecstatic, and, in the piano, carillon-like; song once more returns, now polyphonic and bathed in light. The sound-colour spectrum of this movement includes timbral effects, also – a masterclass in creating a technicolour canvas from a mere four instruments.

It is not with all four instruments that the work ends, however: it is another song, this time for violin and piano: ‘Louange de l’immortalité de Jésus’. A song to transcendent Love (very much with a capital ‘L’), it is hard to imagine a more touching performance. The ascent to the Spheres beautifully managed by Liebeck, with Apekisheva’s chords like shards of crystal, left the music hanging. It is hard to break the silence of that ending – a slow fade seemed the only correct way, and so it was.

A wonderful concert – and I didn’t even boil a kettle (you’ll have to listen to the post-concert discussion to make sense of that one!)

Colin Clarke

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