Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: BBC Wigmore Hall
WORKS: Quatuor pour la fin du temps
PERFORMER: Nash Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: BBCW 1007-2
This spellbinding work, written while Messiaen was a prisoner of war, was first performed in front of some 5,000 fellow inmates on a freezing January day in 1941. Some of the keys on the piano which Messiaen himself played stuck, and the cello was apparently a string short. ‘Never’, Messiaen said later, ‘have I been heard with so much attention and understanding.’

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Even in the best of circumstances, the Quartet for the End of Time is a tricky work to bring off. Its infinitely languorous meditations have to be sustained with complete control; and the long, rhythmically intricate unisons demand complete precision of ensemble. This new ‘live’ performance is generally on a very high level, with Ian Brown’s sensitive piano playing a real asset throughout. Only the concluding meditation disappoints, with Leo Phillips’s rather etiolated violin tone failing to impart the necessary feeling of ecstasy. Madeleine Mitchell, finely accompanied by Joanna MacGregor, is much nearer the mark here, and their version also benefits from the warm playing of the Nash Ensemble’s much-lamented former cellist, Christopher van Kampen.

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Of other rival versions, Michael Collins gives a spectacular account of the hair-raisingly difficult solo clarinet movement on a Decca recording which also has fine contributions from Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis; but Olli Mustonen is far too listless a pianist for Messiaen. Better in the keyboard department is Daniel Barenboim (DG), though the remaining players are not in the same league. The safest all-round recommendation remains Joanna MacGregor’s ensemble, but this newcomer is certainly impressive. Misha Donat