Tuesday 18 October 2016

Transcendent dance: Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at St John's Smith Square

Olivier Messiaen in 1946
Olivier Messiaen in 1946
Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time; Daniel Grimwood, David Campbell, Jamie Campbell, James Barrelet; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Lunchtime performance of Messiaen's quartet which explored the extremes of beauty

Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was the focus of the lunchtime concert at St John's Smith Square on Thursday 13 October 2016, performed by David Campbell (clarinet), Jamie Campbell (violin), James Barralet (cello) and Daniel Grimwood (piano, replacing Simon Callaghan). This was the second performance of the work which I had heard recently (see my review of the performance at Omnibus in Clapham), and it was fascinating to hear how a different group of players brought different aspects of the work into focus.

In Crystal Liturgy there was a great transparency of texture, which enabled David Campbell's clarinet to be prominent without dominating, whilst the delicacy of the other three parts brought a real sense of suspended time. Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time, started with great violence but then came a wonderful sense of transcendence as Jamie Campbell and James Barralet's haunting violin and cello melody was accompanied by Daniel Grimwood's quiet piano chords which created a feeling of suspension and endlessness. The performers brought out a real contrast in the piece, really exploring the quietness yet achieving a remarkable intensity, transcendence almost. This was true of the opening of Abyss of the Birds where David Campbell's clarinet was highly contemplative until the eruptions of the spectacular birdsong inspired passages, here played with strong tones. In Interlude the jazzy rhythms combined with the fast yet transparent texture to create a real immediacy.

In Praise to the Eternity of Jesus Daniel Grimwood really brought out the bluesiness in the piano harmonies, contrasting with the quiet intensity of James Barralet's long cello phrases. These started out as a sort of keening, before developing in intensity. Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets, with its lively unison melody, was taken at quite a steady tempo but played with such a rhythmic vitality that it had a really strong character, and generated considerable excitement toward the end. In Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel who Announces the End of Time there was a hypnotic beauty to James Barralet's finely sung cello phrases, though I did wonder whether Daniel Grimwood's delicate piano could have been a bit more present. As the other players joined in there was a feeing of real magic, as the fascinating textures combined into a transcendent dance. Finally Jamie Campbell's quietly sung violin and Daniel Grimwood's supportively rhythmic piano made Praise to the Immortality of Jesus into something hypnotically endless.

Messiaen's 1941 work, written and performed in the prisoner of war camp, can have a multiplicity of means and not every performer finds the religious backdrop (inspired by Revelation Chapter 10) which Messiaen presupposes for the work. Here the performers brought out the contrasts in the piece, the extremes of quiet and the richness of the harmony, achieving a real sense of transcendence.

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