New Recording of Messiaen’s Famous Quartet


MESSIAEN: Fantaisie for Violin & Piano. Theme & Variations. Quatour pour la Fin du Temps / Ensemble Nordlys: Christine Pryn, vln; Viktor Wennesz, cl; Øystein Sonstad, cel; Kristoffer Hyldig, pn / Danacord DACOCD756

Twenty-six years after his death, Olivier Messiaen remains a controversial and, for many listeners, a difficult composer to absorb. His music was astringent in such a manner that even as late as the mid-1960s, American music critics wrote polemics denouncing his music as unlistenable rubbish (I know; I remember those articles in High Fidelity). For me, he was generally cold and unapproachable until I heard Tashi’s groundbreaking recording of the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps in the 1970s, but even then, it took me two more decades before I finally “got” some of his other music. And to this date, I still don’t like his opera on St. Francis of Assisi or his organ music, the latter of which I find dark and sinister.

But to understand Messiaen one must look into his background and examine his mindset. The son of Cecile Sauvage, a poet who also thought herself a mystic, she deemed her son mystical as well and raised him to believe in spiritual themes, some of which were true and universal—our connection to nature and the universe, and being part of the universal mind—and some which were rubbish, such as the belief that Jesus controls our lives and fate and that birds are mystical creatures whose songs are messages from God. Messiaen bought into both concepts, mixed them together, and endeavored to produce music rooted in Roman Catholic mysticism and nature, particularly his love of birds. Thus when he was a prisoner of war in World War II, thinking he would not survive his incarceration, he wrote his Quartet for the End of Time for himself on piano and the three musicians imprisoned with him, a clarinetist, violinist and cellist. It remains his most popular and, in some ways, most personal and gripping work.

What I found interesting in this CD was the inclusion of two works from the early 1930s that are neither dark nor unapproachable, the Fantaisie and the Theme and Variations. Although clearly bitonal music, neither is unapproachable for the average listener and both are largely rooted in tonality with excursions into remote harmonies and moments of bitonality. Moreover, the musicians of Ensemble Nordlys (Northern Light Ensemble) play them with great enthusiasm and drive, which makes them even more likeable. My sole complaint about the Fantaisie is that I thought it was too short; it was so delightful to listen to that I wanted it to go on for at least another minute. Both works are played only by violinist Christine Pryn and pianist Kristoffer Hyldig, both highly emotional musicians who are completely involved in the music. This in itself makes their performances gripping and engaging in addition to the approachability of the music.

As for the famous quartet, I eventually came to prefer the recording made two years before Messiaen’s death by his wife and longtime musical partner, pianist Yvonne Loriod, with violinist Christoph Popper, clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer and cellist Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (Dietrich’s son). It wasn’t so much a technically superior performance—Tashi clearly played the music well—as an extra layer of sadness and fear in the feeling of the pieces. Considering its origin, this is clearly what Messiaen—who, as I said, was present at the recording session—wanted.

Thus I listened to Ensemble Nordlys’ performance with this in mind. Their approach is somewhat mixed; the drama is there, but in soft passages they only occasionally capture the otherworldly feeling of the score. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of their approach; many performances don’t quite capture this, and Ensemble Nordlys clearly wanted to give a lucid, dramatic reading. And occasionally, as in the third section, “The abyss of the birds,” they do penetrate into the mystical feeling better than Tashi. But Loriod et al set the bar very high, and in my view only clarinetist Viktor Wennesz consistently reaches for it, although violinist Pryn plays with great tenderness of tone in “Praise to the eternity of Jesus.”

This may be nitpicking, but to my ears the playing of Loriod is what outshines most others’ performances. This isn’t surprising, as she was clearly one of the greatest French pianists of her time, often taken for granted because she was Messiaen’s wife. Taken as a totality, Ensemble Nordlys’ reading is for the most part quite satisfactory, though there’s just more “edge” in the Loriod version, particularly in the “Liturgy of crystal” that opens the work and in “Dance of wrath for the seven trumpets” that overshadows all others.

If this is your only exposure to this work, you may not feel disappointed. As I say, it occupies a position midway between Tashi and Loriod etc. But I still recommend Loriod as the reference recording of this work. It’s a pinnacle that may never be reached by anyone else.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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