Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps; Thème et variations

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COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Messiaen
WORKS: Quatuor pour la fin du temps; Thème et variations
PERFORMER: Trio Wanderer: Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano); Pascal Moraguès (clarinet)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901987

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Who would want to listen to anything after the Quartet for the end of Time? Yet as in most other recordings the Hebrides Ensemble and the Trio Wanderer place their fillers after the main event: ‘and the Angel announced that there shall be Time no longer – apart from an encore or two’. The Gould Trio provide a much more satisfying experience, starting with a rarity, the composer’s own piano transcription of his first published orchestral work Les Offrandes oubliées, admirably played by Benjamin Frith, before the ubiquitous Theme and Variations acts as a kind of curtain raiser for the Quartet, which is followed only by silence. With numerous Quartet recordings available, the fillers can make a big difference. The Hebrides Ensemble offer all of Messiaen’s published chamber music, including the first recording of the recently rediscovered Fantaisie (1933) for violin and piano, and also the little known Pièce (1991) for piano and string quartet alongside the more familiar Le Merle noir and Theme and Variations. Captured in marvellous SACD sound, these are superb performances, with delightfully jaunty piano in the Pièce. Violinist Alexander Janiczek and pianist Philip Moore combine transcendent intensity with finely judged pacing in the Theme and Variations, Messiaen’s wedding present to his first wife, Claire Delbos, placing this firmly among the best accounts on disc. The Fantaisie was the composer’s follow-up for Delbos and, while not as sublime, it is just as dramatic as its predecessor, if more fragmented. Sadly, the Hebrides are more workmanlike in the Quartet, while clarinettist Maximiliano Martin’s air-loss becomes a decidedly distracting hissing whenever things get exciting. Whereas the Hebrides are generally swift in approach, the Trio Wanderer are among the slowest on disc. The problem with these three discs, indeed most modern performances, is not so much the speed taken as the often pedantic approach to tempo. Messiaen’s own recording (Accord) is instructive, with remarkable fluidity of tempo throughout. The Trio Wanderer have hints of flexibility, but there are also places that lack direction; the second movement’s long violin and cello duet periodically becomes becalmed. There is plenty to admire, but the piano sound is harsh, dominating the texture, except in the opening ‘Liturgie de cristal’ where, rather than being quiet, it seems to have been placed at the other end of the room. There are no such problems with the Gould Trio, with Frith’s rounded tone a perfect foil for the strings and clarinet. They make slightly heavy going at the opening of the fearsome ‘Danse de la fureur’, but there is greater nuance in the slower passages. Alice Neary uses a wonderful range of timbre and bow position in the cello ‘Louange’, so it is a pity that her vibrato becomes rather oppressive at the climax. Nevertheless, while they lack the freedom of Messiaen’s recording, the Gould Trio and Robert Plane are among the best modern accounts. Christopher Dingle