By Scott MacClelland
OLIVIER MESSIAEN, the inimitable 20th century French composer, is probably best known for his Quartet for the End of Time, a work written while he was ‘resident’ in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in Poland. A devout Catholic and capacious collector of bird song, he took Apocalypse from the John Gospel for inspiration and found among his fellow inmates a violinist, cellist and clarinetist—all professionals—upon whom to inflict what since is famously one of the technically—let alone expressively—most challenging works in all chamber music.
I have heard live performances of it four or five times, though I was not present (or even born) at its 1941 premiere, in the rain, at Stalag VIII A in the Görlitz prison camp. But I suspect the privations of that occasion might well have been echoed in the performance I heard Saturday night in Carmel Valley. Clarinetist Erica Horn, violinist David Dally, cellist Margie Dally and pianist Lucy Faridany dared to take on this 50-minute, eight-movement monster masterpiece and, not without a fierce fight, pulled out angelic visions from John’s terrifying Revelation.
Once Messiaen was liberated and able to resume his creatively original career, ‘End of Time’ opened doors. But not for the faint of heart. It soon attracted artists of the highest virtuosity. In 1975 a ‘clarinet quartet’ called Tashi (‘good fortune’ in Lhasa dialect) was formed precisely for Messiaen’s ‘End of Time,’ and to inspire new works for them. They—clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry and pianist Peter Serkin—raised a new bar for technical and expressive excellence in late 20th century music. (They also attracted the interest of Toru Takemitsu, a Messiaen disciple, who for decades was Japan’s premiere composer of concert works and films scores.)
This is the background for any new local production of music by Messiaen, who, in 1974, performed his own piano music, with his brilliant pianist wife Yvonne Loriod, at UC Santa Cruz. (I was fortunate to be there, as was Katie Clare Mazzeo, who was there for the Saturday concert.)
‘End of Time’ not surprisingly squeezed the best from the quartet, all in harrowing solo exposure. Pianist Faridany had at least the easiest time with intonation. But keeping the notes in tune in spite of the contraindicated voice-leading of the other parts—to say nothing of rhythms that were almost spitefully intended to trip up the players—proved hair-raising.
Going to the edge has to be scary. The full house audience recognized the challenge and the achievement of these four musicians and rewarded them with a well-deserved standing ovation.