Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Quatuor pour la fin du temps
PERFORMER: Gil Shaham (violin), Paul Meyer (clarinet), Jian Wang (cello), Myung-Whun Chung (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 469 052-2
Why is Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time a surefire winner in the concert hall and yet seemingly impossible to capture in the studio? The music represents the triumph of hope in the face of desolate circumstances and mistakes are readily forgiven in the emotive shared experience of a concert. Removed one step from that sense of common humanity with the musicians, recordings focus attention on the inadequacies of the performance.

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The Quartet has been recorded many times, but none of those currently available is unquestionably outstanding. Like many previous accounts of the work, the frisson of anticipation brought by this new version soon turns to frustration, with its many merits being accompanied by substantial flaws. On the positive side, Myung-Whun Chung’s group displays greater warmth than its rivals, with particularly delectable piano sound. Most ensembles, including Joanna MacGregor’s over-rated reading (Collins), lack the flexibility of tempo that this intense and passionate work demands, while Chung and friends could scarcely be accused of playing like automata. So, where does it go wrong? There is the usual accumulation of apparently minor flaws, such as uncomfortable shrillness in the higher register and the exaggeration of quieter dynamics. Astonishingly, though, Chung plays the wrong rhythm throughout the final movement, removing this paean’s insistence and leaving it bland and anodyne. In the absence of a CD transfer of Messiaen’s own performance, and the deletion of the recording with his wife, Yvonne Loriod, on piano (EMI), the best option is the classic account with Michel Béroff. Christopher Dingle