Left Coasters Play Messiaen (& Rohde)

cover AV2452

MESSIAEN: Quartet for the End of Time. ROHDE: one wing* / Left Coast Chamber Ensemble: Jerome Simas, cl; Anna Presler, vln; Tanya Tomkins, cel; Eric Zivian, pno. *Presler & Zivian only / Avie AV2452 (live: Berkeley, February 2020)

Show of hands: How many of my readers are old enough to remember the early-to-mid-1970s when the chamber group Tashi (clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry and pianist Peter Serkin) went around the U.S. in Hippie garb playing the Quartet for the End of Time? I sure do, and it’s a shame that Tashi broke up, but after Messiaen they only played a few other composers’ works (Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat was one) before going their separate ways because, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of music written for this odd combination.

I’ve gone from having two or three recordings of this eerie but emotionally powerful work, one of them being Tashi’s, to just having one, and that is the EMI recording made under the composer’s own supervision and featuring his wife, Yvonne Loriod, as the pianist. (Interestingly, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s son Manuel is the cellist in this performance.) But after listening to the Left Coast Ensemble’s new recording, I’m tempted to add it to my collection.

Their performance is a bit brisker and tauter than either Tashi’s or Messiaen’s but not lacking in emotional intensity. Although I felt that the Left Coast Ensemble’s more linear approach gave a more “streamlined” profile to the music, this is sometimes to its favor as it brings out the structure of the work better. And as I say, the individual members of this quartet clearly get the music’s message. Indeed, I found clarinetist Jerome Simas’ long solo in the third section (“The Abyss of the Birds”) to be as forlorn as that of Wolfgang Meyer on the Messiaen-Loriod recording, and better than that of Stoltzman with Tashi.

Trying to assess the popularity of this work—aside from the fact that Tashi firmly established it as a masterpiece back in the ‘70s—I think that it is because of its extreme textural clarity that listeners can follow and understand the music better than in Messiaen’s more densely written orchestral or solo piano works. The piano part in the Quatuor is relatively easy by his standards, mostly relegated to block chords with only a few moments of virtuosity called for. This leaves room for the other three instruments which, of course, can only play one note at a time. The whole point of it was that it was meant to sound stark; at the time Messiaen wrote and performed it, he was convinced that all four musicians would not live to be freed from their Nazi prison. It was an epitaph that, thankfully, never had to be written until decades later. Thus the music is complex but exceptionally clear, challenging but not too difficult to comprehend. There is even a surprisingly “regular” sort of melody in the “Interlude.”

The back cover of the CD claims that Kurt Rohde’s one wing was “inspired by Messiaen.” His website also tells us that it was written specifically for violinist Anna Presler who plays it in this world premiere recording with pianist Eric Zivian. The basic layout of the piece in melodic contours, harmony and rhythm, are clearly inspired by the Quartet, but the mood is more relaxed and placid, less angst-filled. I liked it but, in the back of my mind, felt that it was just a wee bit too derivative; it sounds so much like Messiaen that I couldn’t honestly tell you what Kurt Rohde’s own personal style sounds like. Yes, I understand that it’s a tribute piece, but still…when Stravinsky rewrote earlier composers, you could still tell that the music wasn’t really by them. It had the stamp of Stravinsky’s personality on it. Taken on its own merits, however, it’s a very affecting piece, it sounds like it could be an extra movement of the Messiaen Quartet, and I can’t deny that Presler plays it with great feeling and depth.

A very fine recording, then, particularly in the case of the Messiaen Quartet.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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