CMNZ scores with brilliant clarinet and piano trio at the End of Time

Chamber Music New Zealand

Julian Bliss (clarinet) and the NZ Trio (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins)

Brahms: Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Op 114
Ross Harris: There May be Light
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 28 July, 7:30 pm 

A programme of what, twenty years ago, might have been seen as a bit forbidding, drew a very good house at this concert, and at the end they responded very enthusiastically.

It may have been partly the fact that here was a conventional chamber group with the added interest of an extra player. It might also have been because audiences have come to accept that there is nothing to fear in Messiaen, even though he was in many ways, and still is, a radical composer who followed a unique path, all his own. In addition, Ross Harris’s music has gained more exposure in recent years; while it still sounds very ‘contemporary’, audience familiarity with much of his recent music, cast in traditional forms such as his six symphonies, has probably won him entry to the small group of new Zealand composers whose names are quite familiar, who are now considered mainstream, no longer too forbidding or incomprehensible.

Even though so far, I can recall only one of his symphonies, the second, being played by the NZSO – just a couple of months ago; there was a piano piece played by Emma Sayers last month and last year a piano quartet; and Requiem for the Fallen was played in 2014 – the year we were overwhelmed with WW1 stuff.

So it was perhaps a small surprise that Ross Harris’s piece, more than Messiaen, was now the most challenging listen, something of a retreat from the big public compositions of recent years, back to the sort of uncompromising composer of his earlier years.

The central piece was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Harris’s There may be light was commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand with the suggestion that it might be related to the Messiaen piece. In many ways, sonically rather than doctrinally, it inhabited a similar world, using the same four instruments, but while Messiaen’s writing generally remains within the normal technical scope of the clarinet, Harris had made use of its eccentric possibilities such as multiphonics – creating more than one note at a time, exploiting the instrument’s harmonic resources.

English clarinetist Julian Bliss, who was born in 1989, has already built a notable reputation in the world of music festivals and prestigious venues. He was on stage for all three pieces. He talked about multiphonics before the performance, but it was hardly central to the music; instead, to have introduced the audience to the actual musical ideas might have been more useful in creating a receptive hearing. As a result, there was little chance to absorb themes or motifs or to follow an argument that might have woven the music’s fabric.

Its main impact was unease, mystification, restlessness, produced by scrambling sounds, elusive slivers of melody that quickly evaporated. Clarinet and strings tended to carry most of the fragmentary musical ideas with a sense of purpose, while the piano’s gestures were reflective and struck me as somewhat incidental. Nevertheless, one was undeniably caught up with the piece, with its interesting, unaccustomed, even evocative sounds; and though I abhor saying this, as it’s like a confession of incompetence, another hearing could be illuminating.

The Messiaen performance was quite superb; the first time I heard it, perhaps 40 years ago, I found its widely disparate elements and Messiaen’s unique voice (or voices) bewildering, yet today it sounds as normal a part of the chamber music repertoire as the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Every one of the eight movements was vividly sculpted, and yet created, as a whole, a mosaic that spoke of the situation of the work’s composition and first performance, as well as feeling still relevant to the human condition today, perhaps even more.

The spotlight moves from place to place, from one kind of religious imagery to another, from all four to pairs of instruments or just one, like the extraordinary third movement, Abîme des oiseaux, where the clarinet alone took us on an astonishing and awful (as in ‘full of awe’) journey through disparate spiritual landscapes. (I heard Murray Khouri play it in total darkness in a memorable performance in Whanganui some years ago). The conspicuously spiritual fifth movement, Louage à l’éterinté de Jésus, is an opportunity for an arresting duet between cello and piano (the one movement without the clarinet); steady, ritualized piano chords underpinning one of the (surely) profoundest musical creations for the cello. The two were in perfect accord.

The association of the brilliant NZTrio and one of the today’s most gifted young clarinetists produced an unforgettable performance.

It’s probably just as well that the charming Brahms trio was placed at the beginning. I was slow in coming to love it but it has taken its place, perhaps somewhere below the quintet and the two clarinet sonatas, but it still delights. If some early parts are less than commanding in terms of musical inspiration, the whole was lovingly and rapturously played, and the last movement, quite short, was a wonderful meeting of minds and hearts.


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