Performative might prevailed in “Beginnings and Endings” put on by the Boston Chamber Music Society yesterday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. Clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois’s spiraling vision of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and violinist Ida Levin’s super structure sculpting of Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata” merit high praise. Pianist Mihae Lee’s straight-ahead precision would openly contrast with cellist Ronald Thomas’s quest for the emotive and the ephemeral, both Lee and Thomas holding firm to their valued musical ideals in both Beethoven and Messiaen.
The performers cast exemplary focus, programming Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio in B-flat major Op. 11 and Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24 “Spring” on the first half of their concert. After intermission, taking the good part of an hour, Olivier Messiaen’s epic Quartet for the End of Time sequestered our senses in a world beyond. Over the years, BCMS has continued to be flexible with regards to personnel, and that element was also striking at Sunday’s chapter. The question of individual voices versus a single, uniform voice in making up an ensemble came to mind during this truly enriching afternoon of music.
The voices of Levin and Lee in the “Spring” sonata worked well. These two individuals successfully transferred the four-movement Classical piece, dating from 1801 and on the verge of Romantic era fever, to a psychological state of being. The mind decidedly was at play in their interpretation. The violinist converted the lyrical and dramatic, the songful and suspenseful, to clear and concrete images projected onto the mind’s screen. The pianist played somewhat akin to a soundtrack wherein ambience, the unutterable, and the like accompanied fascinating states-of-mind sequences. Their approaches caused this listener to fixedly observe such psychological unfolding while mostly relinquishing empathy. Altogether, their Beethoven was hugely intriguing.
The 28-year old Beethoven was far more at play in his opus 11. Surprisingly, BCMS elected refinement over fun that should not have been missed in the final movement, the variations on Pria ch’io l’impegno. “Before I begin work, I must have something to eat” is taken from J. Weigl’s opera L’amour marinaro (Sailors’ Loves), that was first performed in Vienna in 1797. Beethoven composed his trio a year later. Here, it was interesting to follow the trio’s three voices. Individualized inflections of melodic imitations passed from violin to clarinet further underlined the sometimes “soloistic” bent of BCMS. At other times, cello wisps, well-regulated Alberti basses of the piano, together with a pure, boy soprano singing of the clarinet ultimately eluded convincing fusion.
Unlike Beethoven, Messiaen is not everybody’s favorite. Yet, it was a solid reaction from a solid turnout at Kresge Auditorium to the composer who tried fleeing the Nazis on a bicycle without tires. Eventually winding up in Stalag VIIIA prisoner of war camp, where he composed the eight-movement-long quartet based on an angel’s announcement of the end of time, Messiaen found his way of ending musical time by thwarting measures, bar lines, and meters, which are the traditional means of measuring duration. This does not make his music the easiest to master. BCMS nearly did, enough so that the large space of Kresge filled magnificently with birdcalls and color chords pronounced in Messiaen’s own rhythmic language. At times, it was as though I was having an out-of-body experience. From the opening movement, Liturgie de cristal, in which the performers are directed to play en poudroiement harmonieux, that is in harmoniously rising clouds, to the concluding Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus, in which they are instructed to play extremely slow and tender, ecstatic, soft and paradisaical, BCMS did just that, and Ida Levin did so and more in the latter.
In the Abîme des oiseaux for solo clarinet, the pure and heavenly sound of Romie de Guise-Langlois’s instrument soared and chipped birdlike in a sonic blueness bright, then deep. Then, in one breadth, an incredibly long note beginning inaudibly, then increasing ever so slowly and powerfully to the loudest possible amplitude. Hers is a natural insight into Messiaen’s sublime orbit.
The ensemble was not always on point, technically, in the Messiaen. There were some rhythmic troubles in the brassy sections of the Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes, some sour notes from Thomas in his duet with the piano in the sixth movement, then, when joined by the other two near the end, the piano ended early on the dramatic climax of trills. Lee seemed to have given up on the dotted rhythms in Louange while elsewhere her crystal clear cascades of chords excelled.