Monday, 3 October 2016

The end of time in Clapham: Messiaen at Omnibus

Michael Foyle, Maksim Štšura - photo Alastair Merrill
Michael Foyle, Maksim Štšura - photo Alastair Merrill
Messiaen Quatuor pour le fin du temps 
Maksim Štšura, Michael Foyle, Joseph Shiner, Yelian He 
Omnibus, Clapham
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 2 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Young artists bring Messiaen's intense masterpiece to Clapham arts centre

Omnibus is an arts centre created in the former library in Clapham. Close to the common, Clapham Old Town and Clapham Common tube, it has developed into a lively arts venue which runs a monthly classical music series alongside theatre, family, jazz, spoken word and other events. We went along on Sunday 2 October 2016 to hear Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour le fin du temps performed by Maksim Štšura (piano) and Michael Foyle (violin), who form the Foyleštšura Duo, plus Joseph Shiner (clarinet) and Yelian He (cello). All four performers were selected as City Music Foundation artists in 2014.

Joseph Shiner
Joseph Shiner
Messiaen's quartet is quite tricky to programme, there is not much standard repertoire for the combination of violin, clarinet, cello and piano, and the intensity of Messiaen's work makes it rather sui generis. The performers chose to present it alone, preceded by a 30 minute illustrated talk by pianist Maksim Štšura. Štšura was an engaging speaker (though he could perhaps modulate the speed of his delivery somewhat), presenting much information in a lively and often amusing manner. His talk covered the history of the work, addressing the way the premiere, in the prisoner of war camp in 1941, has been somewhat mythologised. He also brought out Messiaen's own notes on the various movements, and these were again projected during the performance to give those unfamiliar with the work a clear guidance.

The music room at Omnibus is a upstairs room in this former-library, with a high ceiling and lively, yet intimate acoustic.

Yelian He
Yelian He
The opening movement Crystal Liturgy started with a fine sense of dialogue between violin (Michael Foyle) and clarinet (Joseph Shiner). Though each of the four instruments had a strong sense of individuality, the way Messiaen writes the music with overlapping uneven phrases, meant that all combined into a whole which had a sense of an endless continuum. In the rather close, intimate venue the result was at times slightly unnerving. Vocalise of for the Angel who announces the end of time opened with playing of great violence and immediacy, and in the middle section the performers created a great delicacy of texture. This was particularly true of the piano, and I did wonder whether Foyle's violin melody, lovely though it was, was too present. But overall the result was hypnotic. In Abyss of birds, Joseph Shiner's solo clarinet combined the winding, plainchant-esque melody with bird-song interludes. Though his playing was full of dexterity and virtuosity, he really achieved an overall sense of contemplation. Interlude for violin, cello and clarinet is the lightest of the movements, here dance-like and ecstatic with moments of wit. Praise to the eternity of Jesus combined an endless sung phrase from Yelian He with Štšura's discreet yet characterful accompaniment. He made the melody grow into striking intensity, before dying away again to create something rather magical. There were moments here when I rather thought of the Blues movement from Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2.

Dance of fury for the seven trumpets has the four instruments in unison. Though the melody was pure Messiaen, the players brought out the uneven rhythms in a way which was rather catchy and almost jazzy. The playing was full of energy, and with a remarkable intensity in the louder sections. Tangle of rainbows brought a variety of textures as Messiaen refers to music from previous movements, and the young players combined the whole into something passionate, yet vivid and full of vivacity. Finally, Praise to the immortality of Jesus for just violin and piano. Here Foyle gave us another long sung melody, with sweet tone and an impressive control, and in the final section exited the concert hall whilst playing, a nice touch.

Messiaen's quartet is  challenge for all four players, with writing which is taxing yet requiring a collective spirit in the performance. The performers have already played the work at the Deal Festival and in Manchester, and the comfortably form a chamber ensemble where the players combine virtuosity with a sense of really listening.

With great works of art, different performers find different things in the work and this is certainly true of Messiaen's quartet. The four young performers gave us an account full of vitality, energy and intensity. They did not bring out the mystical religious side of Messiaen's vision, but instead gave us something which was very present, and rather earthy in its vibrant humanity.

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