Messiaen’s classic of the chamber repertoire takes the Spotlight at St John’s Waterloo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen: Anthony Friend (clarinet), Agata Daraskaite (violin), Peteris Sokolsvskis (cello), James Cheung (piano). St John’s Waterloo, London, 20.11.2022. (MB)

Messiaen’s  Quatuor pour la fin du temps © Matthew Johnson

Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

What a joy to return to a new series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts, itself returning to St John’s Waterloo following refurbishment (and looking like new). Here a single work was on the programme, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, sounding ever more a classic of the chamber repertoire with every fine performance, of which this was certainly one. A quartet of young musicians, clarinetist Anthony Friend (also presiding impresario of the series as a whole), violinist Agata Daraskaite, cellist Peteris Sokolvskis, and pianist James Cheung offered an eminently musicianly view of Messiaen’s work that, rightly, felt no need to dwell one-sidedly on circumstances of composition, leaving space for all to find their own standpoint. Hope, joy, and the mystery of God can take many forms — and frankly, right now, we should be well advised to take what we can.

The opening ‘Liturgie de cristal’, with all four instruments rendering metre and harmony immanent, hypnotised, entranced, and had one believe. Infinitely flexible within an iron framework, it set the scene wonderfully for what was to follow, whether in affinity or contrast. The coming of the angel who announces the end of time in the following ‘Vocalise’ certainly offered immediate, declamatorily apocalyptic contrast, itself followed by the many faces or melodies of that angel in well-nigh hallucinatory fashion. Their sweetness was both unreal and hyper-real: not unlike the colours of a world created anew after a storm.

The solo clarinet ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, in similar paradox, seemed to stretch time so as both to have all that in our world and, yet, in that of the piece only just enough (fitting, given the end of time itself announced). In Friend’s performance, it emerged, intriguingly, as an heir to the cor anglais solo, beyond good and evil, in the third act of Tristan und Isolde, a work whose enraptured victims certainly included Messiaen. A shepherd song, yet sweeter, perhaps even stranger, still more mysterious, it was expertly shaped in performance so as not to sound shaped at all. It was spellbinding, but then so was much else, for instance the twin relief and intensification of the ensuing brief ‘Intermède’. Only after did one have pause to think how tricky it is to write for clarinet, violin, cello, and no piano.

Cheung’s piano returned, of course, for the celebrated ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ with cello. Unhurried, never dragging, it always moved, seemingly founded on a sense of harmonic rhythm from which all else grew. It was as intense as it was big-hearted, Sokolovskis’s vibrato generous, yet never excessive. The strange unisons of ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ glistened, gleamed, glowed, and occasionally glowered.

Such warm precision was felt again, like the rainbows of which the movement told, in ‘Fouillis d’arcs en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps’. There was darkness too, yet always colourful darkness, the angel’s swords of fire palpably present without need to underline. The final ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ sounded very much a kindred spirit to the earlier ‘Louange’, only this time with violin and piano. Daraskaite’s rich-toned, equally generous playing contributed movingly towards a consolation that came close to passing all understanding.

Mark Berry

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