The end of time was doubly punctual! At exactly midday Professor Peter Hill took to the stage at EIF's Hub for his superb talk on Messiaen's 1941 Quartet for the End of Time. Without notes and with a natural teacher's gift for imparting long known information with the enthusiasm of recent discovery, he enlightened a rapt roomful on the work's context and content.

At 17:45 precisely, four of Europe's most sought-after chamber musicians greeted the Greyfriars audience for this long-sold-out event. There was a poignancy in this work, composed and premièred in Silesia's Stalag VIII-A, being performed in Greyfriars, within whose Kirkyard over a thousand Covenanters were imprisoned in 1679 following the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. The Kirk has a wonderful acoustic which, like strong medicine, affects the whole body and not just the targeted area. Every amplified cough, every dropped programme endangered transcendence; heads turned in annoyance belonged to hands through which the work's transporting qualities had temporarily slipped.

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

Messiaen's creative response to wartime imprisonment was atypical. Unshakeable in his faith and, by all accounts evincing equanimity in captivity, Messiaen focused on the end of time as described in Revelations. This demanded the paradoxical achievement of portraying timelessness in one of the 'time arts'. His strategy was to avoid the chain reaction of pattern-expectation-sense-of-future. Thus encouraged to reside in a musical continuous present, we might perceive an intimation of the eternal. The opening “Liturgie du Cristal”'s cycle of 29 chords underpinning the clarinet's 17 rhythm groupings ensures that no patterns occur. Their absence cleared the air for Jörg Widmann's clarinet blackbird and, above that, Antje Weithaas' nightingale violin.

This idyll established, we were blasted by Steven Osborne's fortissimo piano introduction to “Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps”. The ferocity subsided and Gerhardt's cello and Weithaas' violin soared in unison through Osborne's firmament of placidly sparkling chords.

The “Abime des oiseaux” begins at the astonishingly slow metronome mark of forty-seven quavers-per-minute. This rendered even more impressive Jörg Widmann's bar-long, single note crescendo from ppp to fff. This languor yields to a faster tempo where, according to Messiaen's own notes, birds rise from time's slow abyss. The slow tempo's return contains some amazingly angular music across an immense three octave range. Widmann's legato here was extraordinary.

The “Intermède”, a scherzo for violin, clarinet and cello, was written soon after Messiaen's arrival, before the camp procured a piano. The mix of unison, parallel harmony and jaunty counterpoint ensures varied jocular energy which was expressed here with considerable flair. Excellent balance and dynamics resulted in fine ensemble, especially during the harmonic passages.

The meditative “Louange à l'éternité de Jésus” featured Alban Gerhardt's soaring cello accompanied solely by Osborne's piano. Had one not known that these two musicians perform as a duo the communication between them would have seemed extraordinary; even armed with this knowledge it still was. Having arrived 40 minutes early to procure a quality sight-line, I found my eyes closed and my undivided attention drawn by the movements long arcs and very fine dynamic gradations. This was beautiful playing.

Although the opening movement featured all four players the dynamic level was so quiet and the lines so individualistic that the unison opening to “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes”, felt like the first instance of singleness of purpose, albeit in very irregular, if shared rhythms. Osborne, seated behind the others, kept a watchful eye out for cues to the first and last notes of phrases, resulting in perfect ensemble.

The “Foullis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du temps” seems at first to be a reprise of the cello and piano meditation. However, the piano soon takes an unmistakable lead. Osborne's fanfares of forte notes were delivered with suitable urgency for the announcement of time's demise. Gerhardt's cello resumed the gentle lead, now counterpointed by Widmann's unhurried, meandering clarinet.

Violinist Antje Weithaas took the lead for the closing “Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus”. Adapted from the second part of Messiaen's 1930 Diptyque for organ, it soared in similar timeless style to the earlier “Louange”. Emotionally charged as the movement's three peaks are, the second decrescendo's disarmingly lovely piano harmonies grabbed my attention. Weithaas' violin playing was exquisite throughout.

The quartet remained static for some considerable time at the work's conclusion, leaving us to our own thoughts. I couldn't help wondering what the guards in Stalag VIII-A's Hut 27B must have thought of the quartet before them. The quartet before us were left in no doubt about our response as the Kirk's acoustic relayed the applause, cheers and foot stamps of those who had experienced at least a temporary cessation of time during this rush hour concert.

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