Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time
BBC New Generation Artist Elena Urioste on recording Messiaen's masterpiece
Having been brought up in a steadfastly non-religious household that chose instead to worship at the church of 'be nice to people and use your conscience as your guide,' I tend to (perhaps unfairly) approach music rooted in religious faith with a heavy dose of skepticism. Or, to spin it more positively, music has usurped religion as the dominant presence in my life, grounding me though periods of triumph and providing elevation in moments of doubt. What better to believe in than the power of music: a force that transcends words, binds performers and listeners alike in the most intimate of agreements, inspires even the most cynical soul to weep, swell with rapture, or uncover some long-hidden truth?
But Olivier Messiaen, a deeply religious man in the more conventional sense, is able to translate his almost consuming devotion to a higher power - into a sound world so vivid, so acutely moving, that it seriously calls into question my lifelong atheism. If this is what it means to truly believe I can't help but think, as the pulsing heartbeat of his 'Louange' for violin and piano melts away into an eternal silence, that it doesn't seem like such a bad way to go through life after all.
Shortly after my appointment to the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, I met with Adam Gatehouse and Emma Bloxham to map out my coming two years and brainstorm repertoire ideas. Having seen the repertoire of my fellow NGAs, a seed immediately planted itself in my head: Messiaen's Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. I had fallen in love with the piece years before and had the opportunity to perform it only once; upon realising that among my new colleagues on the scheme were a clarinetist, a cellist, and two pianists, that particular choice of repertoire seemed predestined. 'Can we?' I asked Adam and Emma timidly, thinking that such an undertaking, fated and seductive as I chose to view it, seemed improbable due to a host of logistical impediments. But nearly two years, a cycle of new pianists and countless schedule-juggling emails later, ZZ, Mark, Leonard and I had all thrown our hats into the ring. A recording date was set.
I couldn't have been alone in my trepidation regarding the decision to record Messiaen's 50-minute masterpiece after only one day of rehearsals as a quartet, the maximum amount of time that our schedules and Atlantic Ocean-divided living situations would permit. Even with extensive time, detailed score study, and guaranteed collaborative chemistry, how does a group begin to scratch the surface of a work that encapsulates an entire universe?
Nonetheless, when the four of us met at the BBC Maida Vale studios in London a few weeks ago we delved into the work with a collective enthusiasm and synchronicity that suggested that we were continuing on in the middle of a chapter together as opposed to squeezing out an awkward introductory paragraph. Perhaps that is simply the nature of the Quatuor, a mammoth work possessing an emotional arsenal that ranges from terrifying to ecstatic, to unspeakably tender: it gives the impression of having always existed, and unifies its undertakers accordingly. A group doesn't assemble the piece, or build an interpretation from scratch; rather, it works to uncover the flow of music that happens to be passing through the room at that given moment.
Pianist Zhang Zuo, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and clarinettist Mark Simpson warm up in the studio
From left: cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, pianist Zhang Zuo, violinist Elena Urioste and clarinettist Mark Simpson
Despite the emotional gravity of much of the Quatuor - and, of course, paying due respect to the appalling conditions of the prison camp where Messiaen penned most of the piece - the four of us enjoyed a thoroughly congenial rapport from the get-go, due largely to our clarinetist's side-splitting sense of humour. For me, that is the mark of a successful collaborative experience: the ability to handle the music seriously, but not ourselves. By the end of our one allocated rehearsal day we had, to the very best of our ability, wrung as much meaning from the music as our exhausted minds and bodies could manage.
In a way, the eight-hour recording session the following day seemed almost an afterthought. Rather than treat the session as a representation of our definitive interpretation of the piece (a ridiculous mentality for any recording scenario, let alone one for such an abbreviated period of time), letting the tape roll was merely the sonic equivalent to taking a photograph, a snapshot of the work we had done together on a piece that will forever be mightier than one day, one quartet of musicians, one lifetime of study. Admittedly, there were moments of chaos, of severe fatigue, of frustration at the limited amount of time we had been given for such a monumental undertaking; but there were also goosebumps, and tears of overwhelming joy, and glimpses of that intimacy that can only exist between musicians who are inhabiting the exact same space at the exact same time, accessed through a portal which only great music can open.
Perhaps one day life will lead me to believe in a higher power with the fervor and conviction of Olivier Messiaen. In the meantime, the gift of complete synchronicity, with my colleagues and with music itself, provides for me the wholly consuming magic that spiritual devotion offers some. And that is more than enough for me, at least for the time being.
- Elena Urioste, BBC New Generation Artist (violin)
Photos: Elena Urioste/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists