Return to ‘the end of time’
By Scott MacClelland
Ian Scarfe brought his Trinity Alps Chamber Players to Monterey on Monday to perform Olivier Messiaen’s apocalyptic Quartet for the End of Time. Accordingly, after his introductory remarks about the unique piece he advised, “We’ll see you on the other side.”
The divine revelation unfolded, vision by vision, at the Wave Street Studios where an audience of 60-plus packed into the intimate space, while worldwide viewers potentially accessed the event by live video streaming. As with many touring ensembles, this incarnation of the Trinity Alps ensemble—borne of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival (pictured) in northwest California’s remote Hyampom Valley—included violinist Edwin Huizinga, cellist Charles Akert and clarinetist Sacha Rattle. The eight discrete movements that reflect on passages from the Book of Revelations were composed at a Nazi POW camp in 1941 under conditions that could have inspired anyone to thoughts of last days.
The meditative Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, for cello, and (final) Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, for violin—both underpinned by quiet block chords on the piano—make extraordinary demands of the string players who must sustain a seamless line stretched over an ‘eternity’ of time. Both Akert and Huizinga must have wished their bows were two or three inches longer; this is some of the most difficult kind of music to pull off. Abyss of the Birds, for solo clarinet, is hardly less of a challenge. (The piece is often required of clarinetists who are auditioning for a new post.) Rattle, the son of Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle, achieved the effect of bringing sound of out silence with no discernable point of beginning, a feature unique to this music. The full quartet opened the work with Crystal Liturgy, and continued with Vocalise for the Angel who Announces the End of Time, the rocking Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets and Tangle of Rainbows for the (announcing) Angel. In the latter, Messiaen directs the cellist to play swooping glissandos on the E string, an effect well known in his orchestral music for its appearance on the ondes Martenot, an electronic synthesizer invented in the late 1920s.
Overriding all the technical novelties of the work is its expressive character, which is at once mysterious and mystical, a portal to another dimension of consciousness. Scarfe was correct in his “other side” remark. There are still a few of us who remember a two-piano concert by Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod, his wife, at one of the dining commons at UC Santa Cruz, in 1973. What comes to mind is that same expressive character, revealing and implying in equal portions, both lucid and obscure. Such is the allure of Messiaen’s music in all its quoted bird songs, chaotic dissonant and eternal serenity.
Thanks to the Trinity Alps players, the Quartet for the End of Time once again haunts the memory while the seeds it just now planted already anticipate rebirth and the enticing attar of its ephemeral blossoms.