Timeless Messiaen Quartet Is Gem of South Texas Fest

Olivier Messiaen, 1946 (via Wiki Commons)
Olivier Messiaen, 1946, five years after imprisonment (via Wiki)
By Mike Greenberg

No musical work draws the listener into the realm of the sacred, the sublime, the ineffable more completely than Olivier Messiaen‘s Quartet for the End of Time

Messiaen was interned at a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940 when a sympathetic guard, Karl-Albert Brüll, encouraged him to compose a new work to be performed for an audience of prisoners and guards. He wrote it for the instruments and musicians available to him – initially, a trio for clarinet, violin, and cello, later expanded to a quartet with the acquisition of an upright piano, which Messiaen himself played at the premiere, Jan. 15, 1941.

I think I may have heard more performances of Messiaen’s Quartet than of any other 20th-century chamber work – and I’ve probably heard it as often as any of the string quartets of Beethoven or Schubert. Messiaen’s idiom – evading traditional tonality and the regularities of conventional musical time – is not usually the stuff of box-office success in the United States, especially when occupying 45 minutes of a concert program. But this music resonates with a universal human sense of something beyond experience and reason, beyond place and time, a feeling that touches the devoutly religious and the devoutly materialist in equal measure.

Coker United Methodist Church, San Antonio
Coker United Methodist Church, San Antonio

Thus an audience of several hundred listened raptly and responded rapturously once again to the Quartet for the End of Time, the capstone of the Cactus Pear Music Festival‘s remarkable concert of 20th- and 21st-century work on July 6 in San Antonio’s Coker United Methodist Church.

Such is the power of Messiaen’s Quartet that it always draws the best from its players. Every performance I’ve heard has been excellent, and this one was no exception. One aspect of this performance set it somewhat apart from others: a rhythmic fluidity in the quicker movements that made this music sound a little less weird than it usually does. Was that good or bad? It’s hard to say. Maybe both.

The beauties, at any rate, were legion – clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg‘s miraculous control and rhythmic acuity in the solo third movement, “Abyss of the Birds”; cellist Dmitri Atapine‘s rich tone, color sense and heartbreaking inflections in the fifth, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”; violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio‘s long sustained notes brimming with life, and pianist James Winn‘s patient heartbeats in the numinous finale, “In Praise of the Immortality of Jesus.”

Cactus Pear Music Festival 2013The concert opened with Vermont composer Pierre Jalbert‘s strikingly distinctive Trio for piano, violin and cello (1998), which certainly recommended him for further exploration. The first of its two movements (“Life Cycle”) is restless and changeable, rhythmically active and eccentric, harmonically astringent but still within shouting distance of traditional tonality, eclectic in its influences, including jazz and blues. The second (“Agnus Dei”) is meditative, notable for a mournful, almost Hebraic cantorial cello line near the beginning and, near the end, a very beautiful line high on the violin over a pulsing piano and sympathetic nods from the cello. It was hard not to notice a certain family resemblance to Messiaen’s Quartet, though Jalbert’s work did not seem at all derivative.

Coker's stained glass concert setting
Coker’s stained glass concert setting (Cactus Pear Festival)

Between them came three very short works whose grasp exceeded their reach – well, better that than the too-common opposite. Kathryn Mishell‘s Elegy, for violin and piano, sounded more rhapsodic than elegiacal to my ears, and its harmonic modulations imbued the whole with a sense of ecstasy. Witold Lutoslawski‘s Recitativo and Arioso (1951) might be described in much the same terms. Sant’Ambrogio’s warm tone, with a richly grained low register and gleaming highs, made a wonderful impression in both, with Mishell her able partner on piano. Closing this group of miniatures was the Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil‘s “Arabian Waltz” (1998), originally for string quartet but arranged for piano trio by Serouj Kradjian. It begins with a brief improvisation on manually muted piano, in emulation of a traditional Middle Eastern lute, and continues with a lively, swirling dance.

Cactus Pear’s season opener, on July 5, revisited the familiar love triangle of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Pianist Winn, who would prove so effective in the music of recent times on the following night, was less fluent in the German Romantic language. He was equal to the technical bravura in Clara Schumann’s 1838 Scherzo con passione in D Minor for piano solo, though the rhythms were sometimes a little stiff. In Robert Schumann’s Trio in F and Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A, he wanted wider affect and, for want of a better term, charisma, to match the splendid strings – Sant’Ambrogio, Atapine and, in the Brahms, violist Daniel Panner.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.

Note: This review originally appeared in the author’s website, incidentlight.com, and is reprinted here with his permission.