Olivier Messiaen premiered his 1941 prison break suite Quartet for the End of Time in the very same prison he wanted to break out of.
And got away with it.
The program notes for last night’s performance of that immortal partita at the Crypt Sessions uptown quoted the composer as saying that “Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” That the Nazis there missed the point speaks volumes. The prisoners obviously got the message.
Messiaen was eventually liberated from that Nazi POW camp, where he’d debuted it in on a grim, rainy night, playing a barely functional piano alongside a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist who had to make do with only three strings. Talk about chutzpah!
Almost eight decades later, amid the rich natural reverb beneath the vaulted ceiling in the stone crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, the quartet of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and pianist Orion Weiss channeled the terror and defiance and hope against hope that kept Messiaen going at a time when he had no idea that he’d survive the war, let alone be released the following year.
The official story, of course, is that the suite is a portrait of a biblical apocalypse. Considering that Messiaen was a devout Catholic and had a whole liturgical script worked out, there’s no reason to doubt that. But the subtext here screamed as loudly as it possibly could: GET ME OUT!
The four musicians had obviously sized up the sonics, realized what powerful amplification they had in the space’s rich natural reverb, and rolled with it. Kim’s long series of slow upward crescendos, requiring daunting displays of circular breathing, left the audience as breathless as she was. Campbell’s shivery, masterfully nuanced, white-knuckle ascent later on was every bit as haunting and elegaic. And Jackiw’s final pairing with Weiss at the end peaked with an almost horrific cadenza, throwing off the Nazi chains to make way for the opening of heaven…or maybe just a return to prewar normalcy
The interweave of birdsong (Messiaen was cruelly tantalized by birds singing outside his cell window) and stark, jagged close harmonies was all too clear early on. The escape sequence and subsequent chase scene – uneasy, sometimes Indian-tinged harmonies furtively scampering and spiced with one sudden, horrified cadenza after another – in the sixth movement could not have been more vivid, or Hitchcockian.
And in the preceding movement, Weiss’ decision not to go for the jugular with grand guignol but instead to hang back and let the menace linger was ultimately the key to the whole performance. Despite the temptations of innumerable creepy tritones and endless dirge passages rising slowly with mournfully tolling, upper-register belltone accents, the group went for foreshadowing. Yet at the end, Weiss didn’t try to mask Messiaen’s forlorn echo phrases, underscoring a vision of a very Pyrrhic victory.
The likelihood of this same group getting together for this same piece is pretty slim, but the next concert in the Crypt Sessions series, on March 7 at 8 PM, has a similarly dark theme. Baritone Lucas Meachem and his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – who will be six months pregnant by the time she plays the concert – will be performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder suite. To get tickets, you need to get on the email list – the website, http://www.deathofclassical.com says it all.
The crypt is easy to get to, two blocks up the hill from the 157th Street station on the 1 line. There’s plentiful wine and cheese and crudites and banter beforehand. The crowd tends to skew young, and old: lots of twentysomethings out on a date along with more than a few seniors doing the same. And there never seems to be anyone gratuitously gramming here; this crowd comes to descend into the darkness and listen.