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Messiaenic, Miltonian Revelations


A young Olivier Meeiaen
A young Olivier Meeiaen

At the charming outdoor reception preceding Ashmont Hill Chamber Music’s Thursday performance at First Parish Church in Milton, a young lady was telling us that this would be the first classical chamber music concert she had ever seen. “Well,” we responded, “you’re certainly diving off the deep end for it.” And indeed she was, as the sole work on the program was Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, a nearly hour-long meditation on scenes and concepts from the Book of Revelation. Messiaen wrote it while he and the musicians who premiered it were incarcerated in a German POW camp in 1940. Although it is probably Messiaen’s most popular and famous work, it is not exactly your standard summer-music fare, nor is it exactly an easy listen, musically or emotionally.

Before the performance, Aaron Wunsch, who teaches at Juilliard, provided the “liquid program notes” (as Virgil Thomson used to call these lectures). While pointing out the compositional complexities of the piece, both harmonic (Messiaen used the Stravinskyan trick of sounding chords together that in traditional usage would be sounded sequentially, though he gave them here a more rounded French pronunciation) and rhythmic (“additive” and palindromic), Wunsch stressed that the composer’s goal was to write something more for listeners than for either himself or performers. That led us to imagine the circumstances of the quartet’s premiere, outdoors on a rainy and cold January day in 1941, with players using instruments in not the best condition (the piano out of tune, the violin and cello supplied by a prison guard—POW camps, as opposed to concentration camps, could still sometimes afford a few tokens of civilization, at least early on in the war) and to wonder what that literally captive audience made of it (Messiaen later wrote that they seemed to be getting it; maybe they even did).

On a spectacularly clement summer day in 2014, the performance the Quartet received was, on the whole, and with a few minor quibbles, as fine as one can hope to hear. Todd Palmer, clarinet; Jesse Mills, violin; Julia Bruskin, cello; and Rieko Aizawa, piano; are all are based in New York, but Mills teaches at Longy, Aizawa and Palmer frequently appear at New England festivals (she at Marlboro, he in Portland), and Boston native Bruskin often appears locally with her sister Emily as part of the Claremont Trio.

Messiaen deploys the instrumental forces in this piece as a tutti in only half of its eight movements. In the opening “Liturgy of crystal”, the clarinet and violin feature in the composer’s characteristic birdsong transcriptions, with the others (including violin most of the time) providing atmospheric backdrop. Mills here was far less forthcoming sonically than Palmer, and sometimes was hard to differentiate from the harmonics-colored cello line. The second movement, a “vocalise” for the angel announcing the end of time, contrasts powerful, even violent rhetoric for all the players in the outer sections against a static mysticism in the middle, sans clarinet. We were delighted by how Mills and Bruskin blended their sonorities to become, as it were, a single instrument. The third movement, for clarinet solo, was a bravura turn for Palmer, whose dynamic, breath, phrasing and vibrato control were spectacularly eloquent (and, we might add, even better than Richard Stoltzman’s recording with Tashi). The fourth movement, a “scherzo” for all but the piano, was a bit heavy and fierce to constitute true relief; the writing in many places disclosed Messiaen’s debt to Debussy.

The fifth movement, for cello and piano, is the first of two considering the theological position of the Christ. This one contemplates “the eternity of Jesus” and features writing that is harmonically lush and melodically lyrical and rhapsodic. Bruskin was soulful and ecstatic, with a penchant for portamento and a vibrato that sometimes slipped its leash, but her dying last note was sublime. Aizawa’s dynamic pacing here was remarkably effective. The sixth movement, a unison “dance of fury” features the additive rhythm mentioned above—in all fairness, it should be “additive and subtractive,” resulting in a kind of notated rubato that provides a jazzy vibe. The fury here was a bit less furious than it might have been; we suspect the players sacrificed a bit of speed for greater precision, which they achieved impeccably, with not a cent’s worth of intonational space serperating them.

The seventh movement brings back the image of the announcing angel from the second movement, and brings out an opening rich in impressionistic harmonic coloration (where, we wonder, would French music be without whole-tone scales?). Mills’s solo, accompanied by Palmer, was his first extended foray in the work, and it was tonally resplendent. The section depicting the “jumble that is the rainbow” put us in mind of van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” with its whirling explosions of light. The finale, for violin and piano (no slave to compositional orthodoxy was Messiaen!), was the second contemplation of Jesus, this time as the human actor in history. Mills was not as forward as Bruskin in the earlier movement, leaving the piano somewhat more exposed than Messiaen may have intended (the part he wrote for himself was, except in the couple of fast movements, largely chordal and coloristic), but apart from that Mills made lovely, rapturous sounds, notably good in the upper registers, and with a final fade-out of breathtaking purity and nobility.

Recently installed Artistic Director Mary Beth Alger has begun her first season with AHCM strongly, with programs of meaty repertoire and performers of the highest quality, an affirmation and strengthening of the artistic traditions established by her predecessor. We certainly hope it continues along these lines, and that audiences from the entire metro area will take the opportunity to check out what remarkable things are happening outside of downtown Boston. At the same time, we also hope that Alger doesn’t think that she always needs to import talent to achieve those results.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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