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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Concert Review: The Revelations Will Not Be Televised

The Crypt Sessions presents Quatour pour la fin du temps.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stephen Jackiw, Orion Weiss, Jay Campbell and Yoonah Kim contemplate the End of Time.
Photo by Andrew Ousley © 2019 The Death of Classical

The Crypt Sessions has returned and its timing could not be better. Their season opener was Tuesday night, with a performance of Messiaen's Quatour pour la fin du temps, a work written and premiered in a German prisoner of war camp in the dark days of World War II. For the forty-nine lucky souls gathered in the depths of the Church of the Intercession, it was a transcendental experience.

Most of Messiaen's catalogue is concerned with three things: Catholic mysticism, bird-song and an expansion of what listers in the 20th century conceived as tonality. The Quartet is eight movements, based on imagery from the Book of Revelations. It was written with paper and pencil supplied by a sympathetic Nazi guard (the same guard who later forged a stamp from a potato and used it on paperwork that allowed Messiaen to be released.) Even without its amazing history, this is a powerful work of human expression, that remains unforgettable from its first hearing.

Messiaen germinated this music as a trio for violin, cello and clarinet, and it was only later that he added the demanding piano part for himself. The work is in eight movements that shift in tempo and meaning, sometimes employing just two insteuments in dialogue and sometimes written for only one voice. When the four play together as in the faster movements, the effect is tumultuous and assaultive, a dance that is choreoghraphed for celestial beings.

The first movement, "Liturgie de Cristal" is a duet for two of Messiaen's birds, the blackbird (played here by clarinetist Yoonah Kim, and the nightingale (violinist Stefan Jackiw.) The two swooped and dived, trading their trills and twitters over repeated, minimal chords from the piano. The second movement had violin, clarinet and cello bursting forth in an explosion of sound against crashing piano chords played by Orion Weiss. Descending clouds of gentle sound evoked impressionism before the piano chords crashed again.

One of the hardships faced in the world premiere of this piece, at that POW camp was the problems of getting a cello. Eventually a battered instrument was found and brought to that performance. Here, cellist Jay Campbell used his instrument to produce keening lines high up on the G string, or slithering chords that unsettled the ear as he ran glissandi up and down the neck. It was Ms. Kim that moved to the spotlight in the third movement, a long solo passage for her instrument with demanding breath control.

There are passages late in these movements that are clearly influential on the music that followed Messiaen. The use of wide intervals and clashing voices predates the mature writing of Leonard Bernstein, and the surprisingly jazzy changes in the fourth movement (written as cello, violin and clarinet play together almost like a bigh-band line makes up the brief fourth movement. In the fifth, it is back to slow contemplation, with the cello playing a mournful series of long slow notes, accompanied by a funereal piano.

The jazzy writing returns with a vengeance for the following sixth movement, before the rhythms disintegrated into wide, jagged intervals. The seventh featured Mr. Campbell's lamentiing cello over soft piano chords. This led to a chugging, Stravinskian passage reminiscent of the pulsing rhythm of The Rite of Spring. The work ended with a movement for just Mr. Weiss and Mr. Jackiw, a second slow elegy that dwindled away to a slow fadeout. There was a serene silence of contemplation and then the applause woke the dead.

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