Martin Fröst performs Olivier Messiaen's most original and poignant chamber work, the Quartet for the end of time (Quatuor pour la fin du temps), with Lucas Debargue, Janine Jansen and Torleif Thedéen.
Olivier Messiaen is one of the great composers of the 20th century and the Quartet for the end of time is probably his greatest chamber work. The album pushes all kinds of boundaries, first of all through its genesis in a concentration camp, through the unusual combination of the instruments, and then through the performance by Martin Fröst himself who is known for pushing musical and technical boundaries: "There is something approaching the supernatural about his command of his instrument", said The New York Times.
Martin Fröst and Janine Jansen first met 16 years ago and the first piece they ever played together was the Quartet for the End of Time. Torleif Thedeen was also part of that group. This piece left them with a deep sense of connection, and now they record it together for the first time. Janine Jansen, internationally recognized as one of the great violinists and known as a "crowd pleaser", regularly receives standing ovations from enthusiastic audiences. Lucas Debargue, who became famous overnight after causing a sensation at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, enjoys widespread popularity. Opportunity to promote the album through a small tour with the Quartet, starting in Barcelona and culminating in NYC at Carnegie Hall.
The work was composed and first performed at a Nazi concentration camp in 1941 while Messiaen was a prisoner. It is scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, reflecting the players Messiaen had available to him at this time. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, based the work on the language and imagery of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) where time is forever abolished.
|Recording session at the Siemensvilla in Berlin. Photo by Harald Hoffman|
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
♪ Quatuor pour la fin du temps / Quartet for the end of time (1940-1941)
i. Liturgie de cristal
ii. Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
iii. Abîme des oiseaux
v. Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus
vi. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes
vii. Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
viii. Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus
Martin Fröst, clarinet
Lucas Debargue, piano
Janine Jansen, violin
Torleif Thedéen, cello
Cover image by Ingrid Michel
Recorded at Siemensvilla, Berlin, Germany, August 28-30, 2017
Sony Classical 2017
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"For me, Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen is one the most original and most poignant piece of the 20th Century. As the world has been marking and reflecting upon the several anniversaries of the World Wars, in recent years, it felt that now was the perfect time to get this project off the ground, especially too as I feel the music, is still as relevant in today's political climate as it was when it was first premiered in 1941", says Martin Fröst.
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|Photo from the concert at the Verbier Festival, August 4, 2017|
I was in my early teens when I first heard Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; the windows were open to the rehearsal room of a little house, at a summer music camp in Riihimäki, Finland, where, among others, the wonderful Finnish clarinet player Kari Kriikku was practicing the piece. I was bewitched by the rehearsal and couldn't move during the movements Abyss of the Birds, Vocalise, for the Angel who Announces the End of Time, Dance of Frenzy, and Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, and I ended up walking away from the house that day with a different view of the world.
When I met Janine for the first time 16 years ago, the first piece we played together was the quartet; Torleif Thedéen was also part of that group. When we performed the work together, we all experienced one of life's rare and profound musical moments, when everything comes together and you are left with a deep sense of connection not only to the piece, but to each other – we have been trying to find the right circumstances to record the piece together ever since. As the world has been marking and reflecting upon several anniversaries of the World Wars in recent years, it felt that now was the perfect time to get this project off the ground, especially too as I feel the music is still as relevant in today's political climate as it was when it was premiered in 1941. After hearing Lucas Debargue, we had no doubts he was the perfect pianist to join our musical family and be a part of this project.
I wish to say a very special thanks to Vandoren for sponsoring this wonderful project, and for their continuous and much-appreciated assistance throughout my career. It is a pleasure to work with such a professional and supportive team. I would also like to say thank-you to Hans Kipfer, a valued colleague on whom I can always trust, as well as the full team at Sony, for their dedication and support in making this project happen.
I really hope you enjoy our recording and that you will be as taken by the power of this music as I was, those many years ago.
Source: Martin Fröst (CD Booklet)
|Photo from the concert at the Verbier Festival, August 4, 2017|
The language and imagery of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) inspired Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps – surely the most remarkable composition to emerge from a Prisoner of War camp, by a musician whose Catholic faith sustained him in the most arduous circumstances. The work has a printed dedication: "In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who raises his hand towards heaven saying: ‘There shall be Time no longer’".
In May 1940, the German army entered France, and Messiaen was among thousands of French soldiers taken to a makeshift camp in a vast field near Nancy. There he met the clarinettist Henri Akoka and the cellist Étienne Pasquier. As Pasquier later recalled, "while we were still in this field, Messiaen composed a solo clarinet piece for Akoka which was to become the third movement of the Quartet: Abîme des oiseaux".
Messiaen, Akoka and Pasquier were transported at the end of June 1940 to Stalag VIII A, a Prisoner of War camp near Görlitz, about 110 km east of Dresden. Two movements of what was to become the Quartet had earlier incarnations: the "Louange" for cello reused music from the Fête des belles eaux, written in 1937 for an ensemble of six ondes Martenot; and the final "Louange" for violin reworked part of the Diptyque for organ (1930). The "Intermède" was the first movement to be written in Stalag VIII A, rehearsed by Akoka, Pasquier and the violinist Jean Le Boulaire in September 1940. Once the authorities had found a piano for Messiaen, he was able to compose the rest of the Quartet, using German manuscript paper provided by one of the guards at the camp: Carl-Albert Brüll, a music-loving lawyer who also spoke French. The instruments available to Messiaen presented a challenge in terms of blend and balance, and his solution was to use different combinations: solo (clarinet), duos (cello and piano, violin and piano), and trio (clarinet and strings); the whole ensemble plays together in only four of the eight movements. Messiaen recalled the composition and premiere in an interview with Antoine Goléa:
In the Stalag with me were a violinist, a clarinettist and the cellist Étienne Pasquier. I immediately wrote an unpretentious little trio for them, which they played to me in the washrooms. [...] I kept this little piece and gradually added the seven movements that surround it. [...] An upright piano was brought into the camp, very out of tune, the keys of which got stuck arbitrarily. [...] On this piano I played my Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, in front of an audience of five thousand people, the most diverse mixture of all classes in society. [...] Never have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.
This needs to be treated with caution. The premiere of the Quartet took place at the camp – in Hut 27B, which had been converted into a makeshift theatre – at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 January 1941. Two important details were corrected by Étienne Pasquier in an interview with Hannelore Lauerwald. He quietly revised Messiaen's biblical but wildly improbable audience of 5,000 to "about 400", and laid to rest the myth of the three-stringed cello:
All the seats were taken, about four hundred in all, and people listened raptly, their thoughts turning inward, even those who may have been hearing chamber music for the first time. It was extraordinary. [...] It was bitterly cold outside the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops. [...] Messiaen repeatedly claimed that there were only three strings on my cello, but in fact I played on four strings.
In April 1941, a review of the premiere appeared in Lumignon, the French-language camp newspaper, giving a fascinating description of the audience reaction:
It was our good fortune to have witnessed in this camp the first performance of a masterpiece. And what's strange is that in a hut full of prisoners we felt just the same tumultuous and partisan atmosphere as at some premières. [...] While there was fervent enthusiasm on some rows, it was impossible not to sense the irritation on others. [...] It's often a mark of a work's greatness that it has provoked conflict on the occasion of its birth.
By the time this review appeared, Messiaen had been liberated and was back in France. The first Paris performance of the Quartet was given at the Théâtre des Mathurins on 24 June 1941. As at the Görlitz premiere, it included spoken introductions by the composer. Arthur Honegger remarked on this in his review (Comoedia, 12 July 1941), noting that "some people will perhaps have found a little too much literature around this music".
Messiaen's remarks – from which extracts are printed below – were published in the preface to the score. No doubt some twenty-first-century listeners will agree with Honegger, but the Quartet is essentially programme music and to understand his thought processes, and something of the work's programme, this commentary is an essential source.
I. Liturgy of Crystal. Between three and four in the morning, the dawn chorus: a blackbird or a nightingale improvises a solo, surrounded by a shimmer of sound. [...] Transpose this on to a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of heaven.
II. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the End of Time. The first and third sections [...] evoke the power of a mighty Angel, a rainbow round his head. [...] In the middle are the intangible harmonies of heaven. Sweet cascades of blue-orange chords on the piano, enveloping in their distant chimes the chant-like incantations of the violin and cello.
III. Abyss of the Birds. The abyss, which is Time, with its sadness and weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time: they represent our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for joyful vocalises.
IV. Interlude. Scherzo, with a more outgoing character than the other movements, but linked to them by a few melodic recollections.
V. Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad, infinitely slow phrase on the cello magnifies the eternity of the Word with love and reverence, powerful and gentle, whose time never runs out. Majestically, the melody stretches into a kind of tender, noble distance.
VI. Dance of Frenzy, for the Seven Trumpets. Rhythmically, the most individual movement. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets. [...] Music of stone, a formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, enormous blocks of purple fury, icy drunkenness. Listen above all to the immense fortissimo of the augmented version of the theme [...] near the end of the piece.
VII. Tumult of Rainbows, for the Angel who announces the End of Time. Certain passages from the second movement recur here. The angel appears in full force. [...] In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, familiar colours and shapes; then I pass into unreality and suffer, with ecstasy, a spiralling giration of superhuman sounds and colours.
VIII. Praise to the Immortality of Jesus. A broad violin solo, a counterpart to the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second "Louange"? It is particularly aimed at the second aspect of Jesus: Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh. [...] The slow ascent to the extreme high register is the ascent of man to his God, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.
Source: Nigel Simeone (CD Booklet)
|Photo from the concert at the Verbier Festival, August 4, 2017|
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