May 10, 2010

By Lee Alperin

A performance of Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was given at the Salmagundi Club in Manhattan, May 9, 2010 under the auspices of Finland Center.  This quartet is perhaps the most well known piece of chamber music written in the last half century or so and considered a masterpiece by those deemed knowledgeable to make such judgments.  It was composed by the French born Messiaen while in a prisoner of war camp in Germany during the Second World War.  Its first performance, given by him and three other French prisoners, took place at the camp for an audience of prisoners and German guards.  Such an arresting history could not have hurt the work’s popularity despite its screechy dissonances, intricate patterns of harmonies, and difficulties for a general audience to always follow its musical progression.  Somehow, however, the work exudes a certain authority and demands attention throughout.   Especially riveting among its eight movements is part five, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus for cello and piano, a heart-felt piece.  Part eight for violin and piano, Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, was of comparable strength of feeling.

Many of the sections contain some biblical reference which Messiaen took for his inspiration.  The title of the work itself had been taken from a part of the Book of Revelation: That there should be time no longer.  It would have been of interest to ask the musicians how much of the religious significance affected their playing, but I didn’t present the query to them.  All four young musicians performed this difficult work with relative ease as if they had been performing it all their lives though that would not have been possible.  The exemplary artists were Marie Helene Bessesen, clarinet; Alexandrina Boyanova, violin; Elizabeth Means, cello; and Kalle Toivio, piano.   I have nothing but praise for their playing.  However, some professionalism if not seriousness of purpose suffered during the smiles shared by a couple of the players at various times during the performance.