Messiaen masterpiece a centre-piece of Nelson’s festival

Adam Chamber Music Festival: Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time


Martin Roscoe (piano), James Campbell (clarinet), Helene Pohl (violin) and Rolf Gjelsten (cello)


Nelson School of Music, Thursday 10 February, 7.30pm


Major concerts in the evening slot continued through the week. This one drew on the ?fortuitous? presence of both a top-rank pianist and clarinettist to give us Messiaen’s great Quartet.


Some felt the programme was a little long, starting with Brahms first piano trio, a glorious, youthful (he was 20) work full of melody, optimism and enormous promise. It and the Messiaen would have made for a long enough concert, but three fairly short New Zealand works were added. I heard a few small complaints, but surely in a festival, time is not of the essence, and most of us are keen enough on music to welcome more than we might on a cold winter’s night in Wellington. .


A better line-up of musicians for the Brahms trio would be hard to find, certainly in New Zealand at the moment. First, it confirmed what superb chamber musicians all three were, which is not to denigrate their flair in solo repertoire. The restraint with which Martin Roscoe approached this large-limbed, extrovert work was not necessarily to be expected, but even with the lid on the long stick, it was always a perfect fit with the others. Towards the end of the first movement, which was played with the repeats but at a speed that allowed no one to become bored, the piano has a call to arms which stood out all the better after its earlier restraint. However, it was the slow movement that might have surprised some by its stillness and pensiveness.


The first of the New Zealand pieces played by Roscoe was Ross Harris’s short Study in Blue and Green, a colourful impression of the seascape from Paekakariki, beginning in calm and turning into a Northerly gale. John Rimmer’s portrayal of the endangered kokako from the 1970s, when outrage erupted about the continuing destruction of the small remnants of lowland podocarp forest, the kokako’s habitat; your reviewer was present at Pureora forest during the tree-sitting campaign. The piece is based on single notes that suggested the boom of the bird’s call evocatively enough, and trills in the right hand suggested scampering noises of birds and the wind. Not that far removed from the Messiaen piece that was to follow.


Three of Antony Ritchie’s 24 piano preludes were without any specific pictorial inspiration; the composer bravely but convincingly laid himself open to comparison with the Bachs, Chopins, Debussys and Rachmaninovs of the genre. Roscoe vouchsafed his intention to take the pieces back to the UK.


We came to the Messiaen after the interval. Again, there was a sense of wonderment that such a fine quartet of players was here at this festival.


Campbell talked very interestingly, articulately about the music and its origins; excellently chosen words, with the various players illustrating some of the main features. The ambience of the auditorium was atmospheric, with a candelabra behind the stage and spotlight falling solely on the players; perhaps not quite what a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, Musicians are often not sufficiently attentive to visual matters, but here it was admirable.


The eight widely varied movements held the audience spell-bound; as during the previous night’s Winterreise, silence was total till the breaks between each movement when there were careful stretchings and shiftings. The solo clarinet during the first movement, used simply because there was a clarinet player in Stalag 8, seemed to be speaking to the universe, in tones of profound spirituality, by no means a narrow view of Messiaen’s Catholicism.


There were remarkable features in the performances by all players. The clarinet and violin in bird calls in the first movement; the slow Abîme des oiseaux – the third movement – for solo clarinet, that emerges miraculously from nothing to become an awful scream: such breathtaking(?) control. The fifth movement, Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus, for cello and piano, seems central to the work, the piano’s repeated chords became almost intolerable, giving way to the solo cello. The whole is steeped in Messiaen’s unique, mystical religious belief, but the Danse de la fureur, pour les trompettes, in unison, creating a strong though irregular rhythmic pattern, creates perhaps the most specific religious reference; the last two movements succeeded in expressing an extraordinary spirituality, never sectarian, but of universal force and even relevance to today.


I’ve heard it performed live only about four times, and at the end, I was convinced that none had reached the profundity and degree of spiritual ecstasy that this performance had produced. No one capable of speech afterwards was able to express anything very different from that.


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