in: Reviews

January 8, 2019

BCMS Delivers a Stunner

by

A young Olivier Messiaen

Boston Chamber Music Society’s concert last Sunday set such a high bar for musical camaraderie and inspired choice of repertoire that it will doubtless be counted as one of the best concerts of 2019. And that is saying something in a town that consistently produces excellent chamber music concerts. Attendees at the packed Sanders Theater will probably agree with my assessment. We all were held spellbound by this concert, or at least the second half of it, which featured an impassioned take on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.  I imagine that Sunday’s crowd was lured in by the chance to hear this work, which most people are lucky to have heard live once or twice.

But first we were treated to Schubert’s lovely String Trio D 471. Schubert wrote three, all of them, curiously, in B-flat major. From the first of these, D 111A from 1814, only a few measures exist. D 471 consists of a completed first movement and an incomplete second movement, composed in 1816. Although he was 19 when he composed this charmer, it is considered a “mid-life” work, and lasts only about nine minutes. Nevertheless, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, violist Marcus Thompson, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan delivered it as a complete delight.

Mozart’s beloved Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano in E-flat Major K. 498, “Kegelstatt” (1786) followed, in a truly lovely reading by Marcus Thompson, clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois, and pianist Max Levinson. Like Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet, this was composed for his friend Anton Stadler (principal clarinetist of Vienna’s court orchestra). Written in the same year as The Marriage of Figaro, this gem famously comes along with a legend that Mozart composed it while playing skittles, a game a little like ten-pin bowling. You need a crackerjack clarinetist and violist to make this piece work (in my capacity as Viola-Wife, I heard these tricky licks practiced assiduously). Marcus Thompson delivered these solo parts with panache. Romie De Guise-Langlois was very impressive as was Max Levinson.

Few compositions arrived with more storied a birth than Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. According to clarinetist Rebecca Rischin’s book, “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet”:

As Messiaen told the story, he and three friends performed under the most trying circumstances—using dilapidated instruments, including a three-stringed cello—and won the hearts of five thousand hardened soldiers. In fact, the instruments, while inferior, were adequate to the task, and the crowd was more like three hundred. In Rischin’s telling, the Quartet is less a triumph of individual genius and more a collective creation. Messiaen wrote every note, certainly, but the music would never have existed without the collaboration of the prisoners—and guards—of Stalag VIIIA.

Rischin lovingly brings to life the other musicians—Étienne Pasquier, cellist; Henri Akoka, clarinetist; and Jean Le Boulaire, violinist—who played with Messiaen, the pianist at the première. You can sense something of their personalities in the instrumental parts of the Quartet. Pasquier was a wry, gentle man who might have had a major solo career if he had desired one. Akoka, as vibrant and unpredictable as the Quartet’s long clarinet solo, “Abyss of the Birds,” was an Algerian-born Jew who survived the war through blind luck and mad courage. He tried several times to escape, and, in April, 1941, he succeeded: while being transferred from one camp to another by train, he jumped from the top of a fast-moving cattle car, with his clarinet under his arm. Le Boulaire, moody and withdrawn, later abandoned the violin for acting. He took the name Jean Lanier and appeared in New Wave films such as “The Soft Skin” and “Last Year at Marienbad.” When Rischin interviewed him, she perceived him to be a bitter, unhappy man, but at the mention of Messiaen’s Quartet his eyes brightened. “It’s a jewel that’s mine and that will never belong to anyone else,” he said.

Then, there was the quasi-angelic figure of Karl-Albert Brüll, a music-loving guard at Stalag VIIIA. Excited by the presence of a significant composer, Brüll gave Messiaen pencils, erasers, and music paper, and had the composer stationed in an empty barrack so that he could work undisturbed. A guard stood at the door to turn away intruders. After the première, Brüll arranged for Messiaen’s rapid return to France, conspiring in the forging of documents. A German patriot with anti-Nazi tendencies, he kept a sympathetic watch over Jewish prisoners, repeatedly advising them not to try to escape, because they would be safer in Stalag VIIIA than in Vichy France.

Several decades later, Brüll came to Paris and rang at Messiaen’s door. For reasons that remain obscure, Messiaen declined to see him. Perhaps he didn’t remember who Brüll was; perhaps he was unable to confront this apparition from the past. He eventually tried to correct his mistake and sent a message to the man who had made his masterpiece possible. But it was too late. Brüll had died, after being run over by a car.

Those of us of a certain age musically grew up on the famed recording of this work by TASHI (an ensemble of violinist Ida Kavafian, pianist Peter Serkin, cellist Fred Sherry and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, founded in 1973 largely for the purpose of playing the Quartet for the End of Time. While concert performances still may be rare, the Quartet has become by far the most popular of any Messiaen work on records – a half-century after its creation, the Schwann catalog listed 17 then-available CDs plus three more of the Abîme des oiseaux movement. Rischin listed no fewer than 32 separate complete recordings as of 2006 and YouTube currently features two dozen.

Pianist Steven Osborne describes it well in the Guardian in 2004:

Composed while he was a prisoner of war, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time seems to touch the far edges of human experience…. The piece is so deeply involving to hear that one can miss how odd it is. The unusual combination of piano, clarinet, violin and cello, reflecting the players he had available to him at the camp, is only a part of it. Of its eight movements, only half involve all four: one is a solo, two are duets, and one is a trio. Even stranger, the clarinet and cello are silent for the last 10 minutes of the piece. In fact, each musician has to sit still for this long once or twice, which can make the experience of performance feel rather disjointed. This reflects a curious and disparate genesis: the duo movements are reworkings of previous compositions; the solo clarinet movement was written as a gift for Akoka as they travelled together under German guard; the trio was written for friends in captivity before the concept of writing a quartet had even entered Messiaen’s mind. Only the remaining four movements were written with the quartet in mind.

Apparently the amazing BCMS ensemble had only three rehearsals. It sounded like they had been playing it together all their lives. The haunting clarinet solo and the the cello and violin solos (with piano) brought spiritual awakening. Everything that Messiaen envisioned (played on great instruments made a big difference from its debut) came to sublime fruition.

Messiaen’s spoke poetically about his belief: “My faith is the grand drama of my life. I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.”

To which I can only add: Boston Chamber Music Society: Please program this again soon.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This review gets it right in all respects. The Schubert was a nice amuse-bouche opener, and the Mozart would have been the highlight of this or any other chamber concert has it not been followed by the Messiaen in the second half. Great playing all around, especially from clarinetist de Guise-Langois, with exceptional subtlety of voice and timbre and emotional expressiveness.

    Comment by Leon Golub — January 8, 2019 at 6:58 pm

  2. “The story is wonderful: a young French composer in a Germany military prison composes a huge and inspired piece for himself and three other musicians whom he meets there, and on a winter day in 1941 they play it for an audience of 5000. What actually happened, while wonderful, is slightly less wonderful than that. Some of the Quartet had been composed before Messiaen ever got near Stalag VIII-A, and Messiaen, who rivaled Ronald Reagan when it came to believing his own legend, exaggerated the size of the audience by a factor of 20 or so. But what matters is the music, and this meditation on the Revelation of Saint John is one of the miracles in the history of chamber music — fiery, colorful, and in its slow movements serene beyond anything since the last quartets of Beethoven. It is a lesson in how to rise above circumstance.” (MSteinberg)

    Comment by davidrmoran — January 8, 2019 at 7:38 pm

  3. Furthermore, and about the cello –

    “This stirring account needs to be treated with a little caution. Two important details were corrected by the cellist Etienne Pasquier, (interviewed by Hannelore Lauerwald), about the size of the audience and the state of his cello:

    [The first performance of the Quatuor took place] in the hut that we used as the theatre … All the seats were taken, about four hundred in all, and people listened raptly, their thoughts turning inward, even those who may have been listening to chamber music for the first time. The concert took place on Wednesday, 15 January 1941, at six in the evening. It was bitterly cold outside the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops … Messiaen repeatedly claimed that there were only three strings on my cello, but in fact I played on four strings.” (Nigel Simeone)

    https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W15787_120126

    Comment by Robert Smith — January 9, 2019 at 9:51 pm

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