How does one listen to Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time? The title itself is almost incomprehensible. Musical images abound in each of the eight movements—birds, rainbows, angels—but is the dominant image the atmosphere, albeit imagined by the listener, of the quartet’s premier while composer and musicians were prisoners in a German internment camp? Of course, to consider the musical manipulation of time and melody requires its own mental fortitude. The piece makes divine the earthly and the heavens visible to mortals.
The Chicago Chamber Musicians achieved a new level of transcendence Monday evening at the Merit School’s Gottlieb Concert Hall, combining their individual solo skills with adept ensemble playing, and conjuring the drama of each scene that Messiaen describes in the score’s inscription. The pre-dawn bird songs in the violin and clarinet greet the coming angel with light and optimism before the angel descends in a perfect veil of violin a cello unison. Clarinetist Larry Combs’ engaging depiction of the birds written for clarinet solo created a new sense of time that takes flight in an instant, impossible to seize. The cello’s praise of Jesus is a slow build of elongated tones that seem to originate from some great distance; they have no beginning or end, and one has the sense that the notes had been playing long before they were heard. Clancy Newman savored each bow stroke, ever precise in his phrasing while pianist Natalie Zhu kept a gentle pulse of simple chords beneath. The quartet burst with towering force into the “Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets” before returning to the dream-like state of the angel. Violinist Jasmine Lin’s concluding depiction of Jesus was awash in color, her sound chilled or warm, full of anguish and solace that reached fervently upward.
The scope of the all-French program covered a mere twenty-six years, though eons in cultural and musical trends of the early 20th Century. The Quartet for the End of Time is without equal in the chamber repertoire, but I would argue that Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor comes close with its dreamscapes and vibrant abandon. Again, Lin, Newman, and Zhu betrayed a love of long melodies in the Modéré, applying austere but lush phrasing to Ravel’s meandering lines. The trio filled the Pantoum with bravado, and layered crystalline layers of melody to the Passacaille, the heart of the entire piece.
Bassoonist Dennis Michel opened the concert with the Sonata for Bassoon and Piano by Saint-Saëns, bringing a velvety grace to the vocalise melody. Though his gentle cadences were sometimes swallowed by the piano accompaniment, the audience relished the rare opportunity to hear a bassoon front and center.
PS - For more on Messiaen, check out this entry from The New Yorker's Alex Ross.