This is the second year the Ragged School Museum in Mile End has hosted a classical music festival – now under vertiginously challenging circumstances. The festival spotlights young musicians and is led by the pianist duo Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, who together returned to live performance in London playing Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen in a car park in Peckham last month.

Alina Ibragimova and Samson Tsoy © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova and Samson Tsoy
© Eva Vermandel

Messiaen appeared again here – this time with only Tsoy at the keyboard – in his Quartet for the End of Time. But the concert began with a quite different vision of musical eternity with Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV1004, for violin solo, from Alina Ibragimova

The Allemanda began with restless quiet in music whose dramatic dotted opening can be an assured rhetorical flourish; her performance left us with the feeling of music only fitfully returning to itself. Ibragimova combined a highly flexible treatment of pulse and timbre to produce a sophisticated rubato that drew out powerful contrasts between phrases. 

Here she would often employ fingerings that led to playing passages on the D- and A-strings, giving the music a more covered and inward sound, as well as an intimacy. So too did she make use of the feathery sonority of the instrument’s fingerboard, daring to play whisper-soft. This gave the Partita as a whole an exploratory and fragile quality, with sharp contrasts of mood in the brighter moments. The Corrente and Gigue were taken at fearless, perhaps rash, speeds that made these dances defiant and anguished. 

The contrasting episodes of the great Ciaccona played to Ibragimova’s imaginative manipulation of colour and texture. A passage of rapid ornamentation in the upper reaches of the instrument had an ethereal quiet, a sound then brought to the famous arpeggiated sequence that follows, which grew from something distant and ghostly to a ferocious emotional intensity. Rapturous applause, though well-warranted and much-missed over these last months, still seemed strange after a performance of such rawness and even vulnerability.

Nicolas Baldeyrou © Eva Vermandel
Nicolas Baldeyrou
© Eva Vermandel

The story of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Timea musical dramatisation of the book of Revelation, a glimpse of immortality and eternity, is well known, composed and performed in a German POW camp during the Second World War. Our circumstances are quite different, though there was is no shortage of appetite for music of escape, transformation and reconciliation. 

Ibragimova was joined by Tsoy at the piano, Nicolas Baldeyrou’s clarinet and the cello of Andrei Ioniță. Whilst the circling mechanisms of the first movement took a while to gel, the second – a Vocalise for the angel who announces the end of time – had a declamatory ferocity that would often resurface across the 45-minute span of this music. This was especially true of movement six (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets) in which the ensemble seem to relish the sheer noisiness and exuberance of Messiaen’s apocalyptic vision. The world here really does end with a bang and not a whimper.

Alina Ibragimova, Samson Tsoy, Andrei Ioniţă and Nicolas Baldeyrou © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova, Samson Tsoy, Andrei Ioniţă and Nicolas Baldeyrou
© Eva Vermandel

This performance was no dour intellectual afternoon in the seminary, as can sometimes be the case in Messiaen’s hieratic music. Tsoy sculpted the cosmic plainchant that is the second movement’s backdrop with warmth and care; the fourth movement trio for clarinet, violin, and cello had all the wit and lightness of an intermezzo by Ravel. 

The work’s solo moments were amongst the most affecting. Baldeyrou’s Abyss of the Birds had sustained notes of unearthly softness, imperceptibly shading silence into sound, as if from the beyond; at times he produced a sound redolent of Messiaen’s favoured instrument, the organ. Ioniță’s cello unspooled the endless melody of the fifth movement with an almost Mahlerian fervour at its incredibly, searing climaxes. Ibragimova’s violin and Tsoy’s bell-like piano took us to the end of time, ushered in with minimal vibrato and a hushed, floated sound, painting both peace and desolation.

****1