Olivier Messiaen
Martin Frost ,Janine Jansen, Torleif Thedeen, Lucas Debargue
Quartet for the End of Time
Koerner Hall
Tuesday, December 05, 2017

If anything good has come from all things Trump, Brexit and our other motley anxieties, it’s Martin Frost’s choice to record the most optimistic music he understood as an antidote to a world of stifled hope.

The job in question, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la fin du temps) had its debut on Jan. 15, 1941, in Stalag V111A prisoner-of-war-camp in Goerlitz, Germany, just over 100 kilometres east of Dresden, where the already famous French composer was held captive along with 1,000 or more fellow French detainees.

In less stressful circumstances, a glowing reading of the eight-movement quartet has been awarded Dec. 5 in Koerner Hall in Toronto by Frost, arguably the world’s most cutting-edge clarinetist, with violinist Janine Jansen, cellist Torleif Thedeen and pianist Lucas Debargu the identical lineup located on a newly released Sony Classics recording. A distinction must be made here, however. The CD version comes from headphones note perfect. But the live Koerner Hall performance apparently arrived from thin air. All apocalypses should be so gentle.

In Messiaen’s later telling of it, the job’s debut took place “in front of an audience of 5,000 people.” However, Étienne Pasquier, the first cellist, later revised down the number to a 400 people. Pasquier, who gave up on a promising solo career, recalled the bleakness of the day itself: “It was cold in the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops.” (Records show that it was minus-20 C out in the concert’s 6 pm beginning. Barrack 27B was unheated, although some Nazi brass had showed up.)

“Even so,” the cellist went on, “their thoughts were turned inward, even people who might have been hearing room music for the first time. It was extraordinary.”

The Swedish-born Frost first discovered the Quartet when he was 13 at a summer music camp in Riihimaki, Finland, and was immediately transfixed. “I am not sure that it had to do with the piece’s history,” he told me a couple of days ahead of the Toronto concert on the telephone from Quebec City, a stop on a mini-tour ending Thursday night in Carnegie Hall in New York.

“It is about the silence it’s. It is the listening to other individuals play. We talked about documenting it 10 years back. However, I have the feeling that this piece is more relevant now than ever before. We’re turning to our future, especially if you compare today with Messiaen’s time.”

Rufus Wainwright, a recent fan of the Messiaen piece, gets the job’s sense of resiliency just about right when he states, “There is a sadness there but it seems optimistic. It doesn’t seem ruined.”

The Koerner concert opening half had Bela Bartok’s Contrasts, for clarinet, violin and piano (1938) — commissioned by Swing King Benny Goodman, no less — and Karol Szymanowski’s Mity (Myths) (1915). Both bits, aggressively implemented, help tune our ears to the person playing to come in the Messiaen Quartet: into Debargue’s sudden spurts of electrifyingly muscular playing, to cellist Thedeen’s broadest wide assortment of dynamics and to Jansen’s buttery noise.

Nevertheless, the Messiaen Quartet includes a back story the other bits lack, one full of an entire movie’s worth of figures. It includes:

  • Karl-Albert Brull, a music-loving, francophone camp guard. He helped Messiaen get from this camp by supplying him with forged documents. Brull made certain the composer had a steady supply of paper for his or her scores. Sadly, Messiaen years afterwards refused to get him when Brull arrived in the composer’s apartment in Paris.
  • Henri Akoka, the clarinetist in the introduction, escaped by arranging for a transfer to a different camp. Then he jumped off the roof of the cattle car to escape, together with his clarinet tucked beneath his arm. Akoka was an Algerian-born Jew. Escape was his only hope.
  • Jean Le Boulaire, the violinist, gave up playing for behaving (under the name Jean Lanier), appearing in a number of French New Wave movies like Last Year in Marienbad and at the pot boiler Modigliani of Montparnasse. He grew more morose the older he got. “Then everyone resumed his life,” he told a visitor. “When we part we say, ‘We will call each other.’ But we never call.” Having played with the Quatour kept him moving. “It’s a gem that is mine,” he explained, “and that won’t ever belong to anybody else.”

In terms of Messiaen, the pianist for the event, he seemed barely to have noticed that he had been, in actuality, a prisoner of war. Survival appeared no more of a struggle for him than finding a way to compose for an oddball mixture of instruments. Other French composers joined the resistance; Messiaen composed epic piano concertos when he made it back to Paris. Yet he emerged as 20th-century composition’s version of Henri Matisse.

For starters, both Matisse and Messiaen had something about birds, even though the painter preferred his in cages while the composer infused his work with birdsong transcribed live to generate the chirpy clarinet pieces in Liturgie de cristal (Crystal Liturgy), the first of the Quatuor‘s short eight moves. (As a young music student, I discovered Messiaen’s bird mania nicely, feather-brained. Now it is welcome.)

Like the painter, Messiaen uses color as structure. The expressive, tonal shifting clarinet line in Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds) filled every corner of the concert hall’s encompassing silence like it were a light show.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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