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  Linn Records -
  CKD 314
  Messiaen: Chamber Works - Hebrides Ensemble
  Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, Theme et variations, Piece pour piano et quatuor a cordes, Fantaisie, Le Merle noir

Hebrides Ensemble
Track listing:
  Classical - Chamber
Recording type:
Recording info:

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Reviews: 2

Site review by Polly Nomial June 10, 2008
Performance:   Sonics:  
The text for this review has been moved to the new site. You can read it here:

Review by Beagle September 24, 2008 (12 of 12 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is a short review of an excellent disc – with a long, long footnote about the music, because one has to want the music before one wants the disc.

The sound captured by audiophile Linn on this disc is amazingly detailed, so distinct that I am hearing details I never heard before. That is not because it is miked too closely; I can imagine and even desire an even closer miking, but the balance achieved is very satisfying. It is rare to find faint high frequencies and rich lower resonances coexisting. Bravo Linn!

I can’t imagine a more sensitive performance than that presented by Hebrides Ensemble here, ‘perfect’ is the word that keeps coming to mind. Given the rhythmic complexities and subtle harmonies of Messiaen's art, perfect is quite an accomplishment. Bravo Hebrides!

A member of the forum recently asked me “Knowing my taste in music, do you think I’d like Messiaen’s Quatuor?”. Although I couldn’t answer his question, I decided to explain to myself my own liking for this unique work, hence the following:


THE MAN Were musical taste a matter of strict logic, only mystic Catholic bird-watchers would be sympathetic to Messiaen, but that is obviously not the case; Paris recognised his ascendant genius before the war, Britain and the US immediately after. Messiaen was intense in everything he did. To call Messiaen a devout catholic would be like calling the Pope pious; his religiosity developed into an inarticulate mysticism which he articulated with music. He was gifted with or accursed by synaesthesia: he heard sounds as livid colours, e.g. ‘rivers of blue-orange lava’. And Messiaen was remarkably obsessed throughout his life with bird songs (so it is no surprise that he wrote an enormous opera on the life of St Francis).

THE MUSIC Those who regard 20th century music with fear and trembling will be relieved to learn that Messiaen is tonal, although with unusual but seductive note groupings. His childhood hero was Debussy and much of the time it is easy to hear Messiaen as latter-day impressionism – but at other times one is abruptly reminded that Messiaen grew up in the shadow of Stravinsky. This truth is driven home by asymmetric, unimpressionistic rhythms – crazy rhythms! Messiaen called himself a ‘Rhythmician’; he wrote a dictionary of rhythm and wrote fugues using rhythm instead of melody. Rhythm is his building material, melody is secondary. He grew up in The Jazz Age and studied chinese and hindu rhythmic structures – but more importantly, he hiked about the countryside jotting down bird-songs. He is more avian than impressionist.


THE MYTH Messiaen the soldier was captured by the Germans and interred in a POW camp where he was inspired to write ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temp’ as a reaction to the war. It was performed “before an audience of 5000 other inmates” who greeted it with “rapt attention and comprehension” – according to pianist Messiaen.

THE TRUTH Messiaen the organist of La Trinité church in Paris was on summer vacation in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland; he was subsequently conscripted as a medical auxiliary, in which role he worried about losing his technique and career momentum. When Germany invaded France in 1940, he and others such were unheroically herded together. In the first makeshift camp he met clarinetist Akoka and cellist Pasquier. Messiaen at once penned a clarinet piece, ‘The Abyss of the Birds’ (later the third movement of the Quatuor). When they were settled into Stalag VIII-A, violinist Le Boulaire joined to make a musical foursome. Germans provided composition paper and piano, with the latrines for rehearsal space. The Quatuor was not born in captivity: Its final movement for violin started as an organ piece in 1930, and its fifth movement for cello came into the world in 1937 as ‘Festival of the Beautiful Waters’ for six Ondes Martinot – yes, those spooky radio-wave thingies! The completed eight-movement work was premiered in January 1941 to an audience of “about 400 in all” – according to cellist Pasquier. And according to the camp newspaper, the work was received in much the same way as ‘Rite of Spring’ in 1913: “as much with passionate acclaim as with angry denunciation”.

THE MYSTICISM It would be possible to discuss the Quatuor musically without mentioning theology, but such a treatment would be utterly superficial. Messiaen’s prefatory notes to the Quatuor begin with a quote from that most psychedelic appendage to the Bible, The Book of Revelations (Dürer’s wood-engravings will illustrate my point). The quote describes a monstrous Angel who declares “Time shall be no more.” – hence the title. Theologically speaking, Time is a thing with a beginning, middle and end – like a piece of music. Time is deemed necessary, but not necessarily a good thing; like a latrine it is a place in which distasteful events must occur, and which will eventually need cleaning. The ‘Abyss of the Birds’ is that unhappy place, and the birds would rather be elsewhere. But Messiaen insists that the source of the Quatuor was not “the cataclysm and monsters of the Apocalypse but rather its silences of adoration”.

THE ARCHITECTURE Movement 7, in which the Angel announces the end of time, begins in a sad slow adagio which fades to nothing, then breaks into quick aggitato. That stark contrast of two modes of being is the essence of the Quatuor. It is a layer cake of slow-fast-slow movements: 1, 3, 5, 8 and 7A scarcely breathe, 2, 4, 6 and 7B can’t sit still. The first mode includes the two contemplative Louanges (Praise-songs) plus the opening Liturgie and Abyss of the Birds which partake of the same slow pulse. The movements which come between dance to jazzy rhythms. Motifs (bird songs) are shared throughout, but take on a different character in the two different modes. If you have any idea of what a nightingale sounds like (“Jug-jug to dirty ears” –T.S. Elliot), you will hear it in several different roles.

MESSIAEN’S VERSION An abridgement of his introductory essay:
1. Liturgy of Crystal – Messiaen who knew his birds is deliberately vague and merely says “a thrush or nightingale” awakens the other birds in the wee hours of morning; the piano in the role of heaven, looms in “harmonious silence” overhead.
2. Vocalise – The mighty rainbow-hued Angel appears in the first and last sections, as if to span earth and sea; in between comes more heavenly harmonic silences on the piano.
3. Abyss of the Birds – The clarinet portrays birds which are saddened by the tedium of Time, birds of course are humanity’s desire for light, colour, song.
4. Interlude – An extrovert Scherzo which shares themes from above.
5. Praise to Eternity – The cello speaks slowly and at length about The Word, i.e. God.
6. Dance of Fury – “…formidable sonority, movement as irresistible as steel…” portrays seven trumpets and their world-ending catastrophes.
7. Rainbow Cluster for the Angel – Iridescent themes from 2 are repeated; “I hear and see ordered melodies and chords… [then] I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex… rivers of blue-orange lava, then suddenly stars” says Messiaen.

MY OWN PRIVATE QUATUOR I have been living with the above agenda for about a quarter-century and, as Messiaen himself says at the end of his essay, “All this is mere striving and childish stammering…”. I have nonetheless become very fond of this work and at-home in its bipolar moods. Below is my personal very unauthoritative story-line for the Quatuor (borrowed heavily from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’):
1. Out of darkness, birds sing the world into existence, beginning with the nightingale. This world is a Book of Genesis paradise – for birds.
2. The wily Serpent arrives and proceeds to tempt the birds to eat the forbidden fruit to which they reply ‘Oh no we shouldn’t’ – but at 0:32 on this disc they reach up, up, up for the apple… and at 0:44 they fall down, down, DOWN!
3. Miseryville; oh boy those birds are sorry now! At 4:10 just before the movement ends, something or Someone descends… even further down, or from Above?
4. The birds are wheeling and dealing, robbing widows and orphans, dancing the hootchie-kootchie and getting fuzzy on champagne.
5. Up in timeless heaven, Eternity is sad about what has happened down in Time.
6. Back in the abyss, the nightingale as prophet-bird lays down the law; the birds do piety for a bit, then revert to their old tricks. Nightingale warns them again, but it’s no use. We hear that ‘Grab the Apple’ theme again and… THUD! another fall. More stern warnings, a bit more piety, but finally: a bad ending.
7. Meanwhile back in timeless heaven, Eternity continues to be saddened by events in birdland, ending with a weary sigh…. At 1:22 the camera shifts back to the abyss where the birds are getting badder and badder till, at 1:50 Eternity itself descends into Time in order to spread some serenity – but at 3:20 Eternity gets nailed for all its pains. Bad birds! Eternity has had enough, so the Angel blows the trumpet and it’s Game Over.
8. Back up in heaven, everyone is sad but relieved, and Eternity gets back to doing what it is best at: Sweet Nothing.

MEA CULPA I have broken all my own rules as to what constitutes a capital-Q Quartet, and admitted Messiaen’s into the canon. In sensu stricto, a quartet should have two violins, a viola and a cello; in practice I would allow the addition of a soprano or pre-recorded tape (and compositions for four cellos remain an intriguing approximation). Messiaen’s foursome of violin, clarinet, cello and piano would, from the outside, look like it didn’t have a hope of qualifying; nor on the inside does Messiaen use the instruments as four equal voices (he is more likely to do solos, duos or trios). So why give this one-off combo honorary membership in Club Q? Because Messiaen has built an awesome musical structure out of four instruments which just happened to be knocking around the Stalag. Such an accomplishment overrides all picayune quibbles, and earns it high standing in the ranks of music a quattro.

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Works: 5  

Olivier Messiaen - Fantaisie
Olivier Messiaen - Le Merle noir
Olivier Messiaen - Piece pour piano et quatuor a cordes
Olivier Messiaen - Quatuor pour la fin du Temps
Olivier Messiaen - Theme et variations