WORKS: Quatuor pour le fin de temps
PERFORMER: Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Eric Halen (violin), Desmond Hoebig (cello), David Peck (clarinet)
CATALOGUE NO: 3-7378-2
The Quartet for the End of Time is a difficult work for performers. In one sense it is a gift being one of those pieces which rarely fails to move the listener, even in the many distinctly average readings. The music’s message of hope in the face of desolate circumstances usually transcends any technical or interpretative shortcomings. This is a double-edged sword as few performances come close to meeting the demands of the work, especially on disc. A combination of the quartet’s intrinsic technical difficulties, knowledge of the circumstances behind its genesis and premiere – freezing and hungry in Stalag VIIIA – and the portentous nature of the Apocalypse-inspired subject matter results in most recorded accounts adding up to less than the sum of their parts. A frequent problem is that ensembles ignore the composer’s supplication for a ‘lively and sensitive’ interpretation. This is certainly not a charge which could be levelled at this Houston ensemble.
There are imaginative and revelatory moments, but they are more than outweighed by periodic misjudgements and an atrocious recording. For instance, instead of Messiaen’s deliberately arbitrary cut-off at the end of the timeless opening movement, they contrive to suggest a conclusion. Even more bizarre are the sudden lurches between two distinct approaches to the final movement’s repetitive judder of the piano – presumably the result of poor editing. In the absence of a CD transfer of Messiaen’s own performance, the EMI account with his wife, Yvonne Loriod, on piano is the best all-round option. Christopher Dingle