Olivier Messiaen premiered his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prison camp. There’s no way of knowing exactly what he was thinking at the time, but it’s probably safe to say that he considered that maybe this could have been his last concert, and the last piece of music he’d ever write. And while much of it is macabre, there’s a transgresssive subtext: we’re going to make a break for it and get the hell out of here, Messiaen seems to be saying. And he got away with it, right under the Nazis’ noses!
As it turned out, Messiaen didn’t have to go through with an escape plan, and there were no reprisals. Either the Nazis didn’t get it, or they didn’t take him seriously. He would eventually be liberated in 1941 and go on to write lots of other somewhat less creepy music. The new recording of the Quartet for the End of Time by clarinetist Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – streaming at Spotify – is worth owning just for the liner notes. Long story short: new scholarship reveals that the composer didn’t write all of it in the Nazi camp. Like so many other European artists, he’d volunteered to fight the Nazis, but this harrowing suite underscores how much he hated wartime conditions.
There are parts of the new album that sound fast, and others that sound slow, although that perception uptimately proves false. It’s probably due to how intensely Severe and the group – pianist Théo Fouchenneret, cellist Volodia van Keulen and violinist David Petrlik– tackle the piece. The many passages that evoke the songs of the birds that Messiaen loved so much are muted and distant, a taunt to a prisoner who can only hear them. The aching, acidically immersive, apocalyptic rapture of the final movement drags on and on – exactly as the composer persuaded his bandmates to play it the first time around. But the frantic, stormy moments before then are just short of grand guignol. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, left no doubt how sincere his liturgical themes of struggle and salvation were, but here the real-life horror narrative is inescapably, barely concealed amidst the shrieks, sprints and sudden swells.
There aren’t many other pieces of music for such a strange lineup as piano, violin, clarinet and cello, but the group found one: Thomas Ades‘ Studies from his opera The Tempest. These short character sketches – Messiaen-inspired instrumental arrangements of operatic themes – run the gamut from calm pensiveness to brooding melancholy.