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Radius: Messiaen and Revelation


A young Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du Temps poured through the space of Longy’s Pickman Hall Saturday evening. The work’s title, also serving as the name for the Radius Ensemble’s concert comes from the Book of Revelation, where an angel announces: “There will be no more time.” His score, absent of measured time in the traditional use of barlines, draws on birdsongs and elements that he later explained in “The Technique of My Musical Language” the composer’s own little book on “theory.”

Several years ago, Radius and Boston composer Marti Epstein decided that the Messiaen needed a companion piece. She called her “response” Abîme des oiseaux, a title taken from the Frenchman’s oeuvre. The ensemble, however, elected to perform the world premiere of Epstein’s Abyss of the birds before, not after, the epic Quatour. Other than bird sounds, few connections with Messiaen became apparent. Even after Epstein’s self-described murky beginning, her dense sextet never really clarified or came to life.

Praise goes to Radius for presenting Messiaen’s 1941 masterpiece of the mid-20th century created in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Gabriela Diaz, Eran Egozy, David Russell, and Sarah Bob appeared committed to the challenges of Messiaen’s script though there were rough edges around a clouded Catholic mysticism.

The full quartet began “Liturgy of Cristal,” as Messiaen tells us, with the solo clarinet imitating a blackbird’s song and the violin imitating a nightingale’s song. The piano glimpses of something eternal, yet in this iteration, the piano’s color-filled streams of harmonies instead became pitted. The ephemeral glissandi or sliding notes of the cello could hardly be heard. One thinks of the “wave-making” ondes martenot, for which Messiaen often composed. Cellist and radio operator Maurice Martenot invented it in 1928, wanting to create an electronic keyboard instrument with the expressiveness of the cello.

“Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time” is about the power of this mighty angel and the impalpable harmonies of heaven. Here, unbalanced playing mixed with hints of rapture. “Abyss of the birds,” where the abyss is weariness of time, birds are the stars. Clarinetist Egozy transmitted extremely slow sonics almost purely, the birdsongs a bit less than mellifluous, and the whole of the movement somewhat disengaged.    

For the “Interlude,” a trio of a more individual character, the players delivered considerable spunk and real shading but with a bumpy ending. “Praise to the eternity of Jesus” is to be taken “infinitely slow” the cello magnifying reverence and the eternity of the Word. Pianist Bob often overwhelmed cellist Russell with dramatic crescendos. “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets” has the four instruments in unison imitating gongs and trumpets; Radius responded as a virtual precision ensemble with all-out offbeat accenting.

“A mingling of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of Time”—here the angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him–a tangle of swords of fire, blue-orange lava, and stars as Messiaen describes the movement. Radius’s genuine aspiration manifested in a becoming soft clarinet background, raucous trills, refreshing rhythmic vitality, and again some instrumental disparities. 
The closing, “Praise to the immortality of Jesus” for violin solo forms the counterpart to the cello solo of the 5th movement but now intended as Jesus the Man—the Word made flesh. In this rendering of the duet, the powering of the piano into prominence defied a Messiaen trait, that of tenderness. Despite this, Gabriela Diaz’s heaven-sent violin left us where the devout Catholic Olivier Messiaen wanted us to be—Paradise.  

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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