Composer: Olivier Messiaen
Exactly 81 years to the day before this Twilight Concert in the Howard Assembly Room one of the most remarkable premieres of the 20th century took place. Olivier Messiaen was a prisoner of war near Gorlitz in Germany (now in Poland) and, with the aid of a friendly guard who brought him pencil and paper, completed his Quartet for the End of Time which premiered at the camp on January 15, 1941. The unusual, though not unique, instrumentation of piano, clarinet, violin and cello was caused by the presence of professional musicians on those instruments in the camp, Messiaen himself playing piano.
The quartet is apocalyptic, based on a quotation from the Revelation of St. John, but is not concerned with the horrors of the end of the world. Messiaen’s work expresses his faith in salvation: the second and seventh movements of the eight-movement, 50-minute quartet deal with the coming of an angel to announce the end of time. He is clothed in a rainbow, to Messiaen a symbol of peace and wisdom. The idea of “the end of time” also sits appositely with Messiaen’s unorthodox rhythmic patterns.
The quartet, though perfectly accessible, is unorthodox in several ways. For a start the four instruments are not consistently integrated. There are dramatic and thrilling concerted passages, but only four of the movements use all four instruments. The wonderful third movement is an unaccompanied clarinet solo, extremely slow with unexpected leaps and intervals and evocative silences, then bursting into the sound of birdsong.
As so often with Messiaen, birdsong underlies his vision of the world and the quartet begins with the clarinet and violin imitating blackbird and nightingale. The impact of the central movements derives in part from contrasts, the otherworldly third movement leading to a jaunty, even humorous Scherzo, then to a soulful cello solo (with piano accompaniment) and a fiercely rhythmic, almost jazzy dance episode. After the power of the angel is unleashed for the second time, the quartet ends with a movement for violin and piano that recaptures the mood of the fifth movement, both intense and serene.
A near-capacity Howard Assembly Room audience (impressive for 4 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon) sat in an in-the-round configuration, appropriate to such an involving and unconventional work, enthralled by an immaculate and committed performance by Opera North’s Head of Music, David Cowan, and three senior members of the Opera North Orchestra.
Reviewed on January 15th 2022