An Awestruck, Terrifying Quartet for the End of Time
It’s a pretty open-and-shut case that Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is the most riveting piece of music ever written in the bathroom. True story: as clarinetist James Campbell recounted to a mostly sold-out house at Subculture Thursday night, the composer came up with most of the angst-ridden eight-part suite in the latrine at a Nazi prison camp in 1940. A guard there had recognized the French composer and offered him the use of a dilapidated piano, which was moved into the warmest room in the camp…you can guess where that was. The rest is history.
Out of necessity, Messiaen wrote the Quartet for clarinet, piano, violin and cello, considering that was the extent of the available talent pool. Because of this unorthodox instrumentation, the work is rarely staged, although over the years it’s developed a rabid cult following who flock to infrequent performances such as this one. What made this particular concert so auspicious was that it was the Gryphon Trio, arguably the world’s foremost currently active ensemble to tackle the piece with any regularity, joining forces with Campbell. The four recorded it at the Banff Centre a couple of years ago and have performed it perhaps more often than any other group in recent memory other than the quartet Tashi, who made a career out of it.
What special insight would this group bring to the piece? Tons. Campbell and the rest of the ensemble painstakingly parsed brief fragments from the work beforehand to demonstrate how Messiaen’s apocalyptic liturgical themes corresponded with his confinement. As Campbell dryly put it, Messiaen had no assurance that he’d ever leave alive, let alone that the war would end with the Nazis on the losing side.
Because most ensembles who play the piece are essentially pickup groups – not to mention that Messiaen’s tempos thoughout it are so slow – those groups tend to rush it. How did this four approach it? Methodically and intimately: what they grasped more than anything was Messiaen’s defiant subtext of rescue and redemption. Pianist James Parker gave the opening movement more of a mechanically marching rhythm (which could be read as a satire of life in Nazi captivity) and also paired off steadily against Annalee Patipatanakoon’s literally unearthly violin on the rapt outro. But in between, they let the music linger, resonant, otherworldly, sometimes macabre, sometimes alluding to the soul-crushing, numbing effects of being behind bars. Roman Borys’ desolately panoramic, emotionally depleted cello solo against Parker’s bitter resonace in the fifth movement was one of many literally transcendent moments, as were Campbell’s series of long crescendos that suddenly burst into birdsong in the second. These are among the most difficult passages in the chamber music repertoire for a clarinetist, but Campbell matched crystalline nuance to a nimble, picturesque, avian attack. And he captured the offhand cruelty of Messiaen being haunted by hearing but not being able to see the birds he loved so much outside his cell window.
Before the Messiaen, the Gryphon Trio treated the audience to a vivid, energetic, dynamically rich performance of the Ravel Piano Trio. Parker explained that the group would not be shying away from its pre-World War I unease (the composer hurried to finish it so that he could go off to volunteer as an ambulance driver). And the ensemble did exactly that, through the distantly flamenco-tinged opening movement, continuing with what the pianist called its “Cirque de Soleil” interlude and then the kinetic finale which saw the return of the flamenco theme flicker out with a guarded optimism.