The London Sinfonietta introducing the audience to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Penderecki and Messiaen: Tim Gill (cello), Jonathan Cross (speaker), London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 3.11.2022. (JC)

Cellist Tim Gill and members of the London Sinfonietta in rehearsal © Belinda Lawley

PendereckiPer Slava; Quartet for Clarinet and Strings

MessiaenQuartet for the End of Time

Autumn 2022 seems to be the season of Messiaen for me. I heard a fantastic recital by noted Messiaen performer Tamara Stefanovich, which included the Rite-of-Spring-esque Cantéyodjayâ, at King’s Place last month. I was in a rehearsal of the Turangalîla-Symphonie just this afternoon (luckily not playing the ridiculously challenging piano part!) and this very evening I attended a chamber concert by the London Sinfonietta which had Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) as its centrepiece. Catching a glimpse of Messiaen’s mesmerising sound world for the first time can be revelatory, but gaining a deeper understanding of his music by absorbing more of his works served to make him even more of a fascinating composer to me.

Originally, this concert was to be a collaboration between the London Sinfonietta and the International Centre of Contemporary Music in highlighting the music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, but due to the illness of the conductor Zvonimir Hačko, they decided to reschedule the concert for a future date; instead, the London Sinfonietta would present a different programme, this time putting Olivier Messiaen to the forefront. Nevertheless, Penderecki still starred in the first half of this concert in the form of his brief piece for cello Per Slava, written for the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and performed by Tim Gill this evening, as well as his Quartet for Clarinet and strings. I thought it was very nice not only to include the works of the original composer-in-honour, but also to introduce some rather obscure pieces by Penderecki alongside the more well-known contemporary masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time.

The London Sinfonietta seemed eager to show their advocacy for intimacy and a less formal setting when Chief Executive and Artistic Director Andrew Burke came onstage before the start of the concert and encouraged audience members at the back of the hall to feel free to find empty seats up front in order to better enjoy the concert. However, that invitation seemed only to trigger a slight ripple of discomfort in an otherwise settled Queen Elizabeth Hall, as people shuffled around, some taking great care not to spill their beer as they journeyed over bags and umbrellas to their new home for the next two hours.

Per Slava is a six-minute piece that I am quite certain no one in the hall has ever heard. Penderecki’s works are normally quite inaccessible to those unfamiliar with his style, but this piece, in its structural simplicity, was easy to follow, and Gill shaped the phrases clearly and concisely for us to follow. Beginning with a simple motif, barely the silhouette of a melody, every small dissonance which emerged from it seemed profound, and I was struck by how lonely the solo cello was onstage. The simplicity of the music made me reflect on all that surrounded it and wrapped the music in a halo of profundity. Still, there were moments which required great dexterity from the performer, and Gill executed those passages accurately.

Following Per Slava was Penderecki’s Quartet for Clarinet and strings. The first movement, Notturno, is a brief one, with the instruments coming in individually, each in mournful counterpoint to the other. Again, a sense of melancholy struck me, and I was reminded of lonely figures in the night crossing paths but never greeting each other. The second movement (Scherzo) is intense and scuttling. Despite the obvious technical challenge posed by this movement, the quartet stayed very much together without fault, but I thought it could do with a bit more intensity and drive. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the melancholy final movement, Abschied (Farewell), which the quartet played with a beautiful yet fragile sound.

Before the interval, writer and music lecturer Jonathan Cross came onstage with a slightly different quartet arrangement from the Penderecki one to introduce Messiaen’s masterpiece to the audience accompanied by some live examples. The humorous tone of his lecture helped enliven the audience and even seemed to relax the players. In a few minutes he had given us a crash course on Messiaen’s background and his music, including his intense Catholic faith and esoteric lifelong interest in ornithology, as well as the story behind the conception of this quartet. He then proceeded to touch on the musical logic of Messiaen, giving us easy access into complicated Messiaenic concepts such as his ‘modes of limited transposition’. I found it really interesting and thought it was a great idea to prepare an already open-minded audience for what we would hear. This small piece of education we got as part of our ticket package was neither pretentious nor intellectually demanding and served the mantra of the London Sinfonietta of introducing contemporary music to a wider audience very well.

It was obvious to me that the London Sinfonietta players were much more acquainted with the Messiaen. Perhaps it was the lecture beforehand, but it seemed to me Messiaen’s music in his Quartet for the End of Time is quite accessible in the way the music expresses the title of each movement. The explanations given by Jonathan Cross paved way for our appreciation of the music as we grasped the logic behind its composition. This is not abstract music, but music that wants to signify something, be it the vision of an angel or birdsong, and it is important not just to appreciate it simply as music in its own right; knowing what the music symbolises enhances our appreciation of it. There was some beautiful unison playing between violin and cello in the second movement, Vocalise. I was particularly impressed by the clarinet solo in the third movement, ‘Abîme des oiseaux’; Robert Plane paid close attention to the sound he was making in the hall, and his ‘birdsong’ really grew until it filled the whole space. But just as his sound could grow infinitely large, so his quiet moments could be so infinitesimally small that one really had to strain one’s ears to hear the sound, making it all the more exquisite. Hearing his solo was a wonderful experience.

Gill’s solo in the first movement (‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’) was also really beautiful, but I had to hide an inappropriate smirk at the long — at times disproportionally long — lyrical melodic line which Messiaen wrote for the cello because it reminded me of what Richter said about the composer being too sentimental: ‘you get these sugar-water climaxes that I can’t stand.’ In the case of this quartet, I must disagree with Richter; the climax in the seventh movement (‘Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel) triggered a release of emotions, and I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one in the hall shaking my head in awe of this ‘sugar-water climax’, Messiaen’s unique sonic vision of religious ecstasy. However, youthful Messiaen (this quartet was written when the composer was 32) does ask for unabashed sentimentality in performing his music, and in that sense I found the Sinfonietta players seemingly in timid sympathy with Richter, for they seemed to hold back slightly in their playing, restraining this incredible desire the music unashamedly calls for.

Jeremy Chan

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