It is rare to find a venue where one can walk from a Cuban big band set (Orquestra Estelar) and into a performance of one of Messiaen’s most transcendental and intimate masterpieces. Rarer still for such a venue to place the latter performance next door to the former in a lecture room entirely lacking in acoustic shielding, so that any noise from outside is clearly audible. Rarer once again for the big band’s show to begin only 15 minutes prior to the Messiaen, meaning that two of the movements were played with the backing of Latin brass and rhythm. Written in 1940–41 for musical prisoners at the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp where Messiaen was detained, the Quartet for the End of Time is based on a line from the Book of Revelation, speaking of the end of the world and the bliss of the afterlife – hardly concomitant to upbeat jazz.

© Kings Place
© Kings Place

What’s more, the Nosis Trio (with guest clarinettist Oliver Janes) had, for about half the work, to compete with the rock music and loud discussions from next door’s gallery. Sitting waiting for the young performers, gradually realising the admittedly excellent jazz we heard was not going to let up, one lady summarised the room’s feelings sufficiently succinctly that decency prevents me from reproducing the exclamation. The quartet’s faces on sitting down showed they might well have agreed with her.

This unfortunate programming spoiled the first half of what could have been a wholly engaging performance. Kings Place opened to the public in 2008 and the range of entertainment on offer at this weekend’s Kings Place Festival is truly impressive – the brochure lists 104 events in three days – and there is a huge selection of artistic attractions throughout the year as well. How is it, then, that in this instance it neglected the needs of these talented young musicians? Performing the quartet to a high level, as with any work, takes huge focus – focus intense enough that any distraction can have consequences in performance. Although very occasionally it seemed concentration was lacking, it is to this young ensemble’s credit that they played throughout with such conviction and impeccable musicality. Even whilst the external noise continued, it was apparent we were listening to really committed and intense playing, in both the sublime solo cantilenas and the ecstatic, flying roulades of the larger ensemble movements.

Indeed, it would be unfair to allow the festival’s organisational issues to supersede the playing of the young ensemble in this review, for their performance was one that sounded as young and fresh-faced as the players themselves. Messiaen’s love for his God was not, in this reading, austere and distant, but immediate, passionate, and totally alive, an almost erotic spirituality expressed in visceral, romantic terms; this was almost Wagnerian in its physicality. Eleanor Corr’s violin solo in the final movement summed up the whole performance; although technical security was not always guaranteed (bow shake was an occasional issue), the emotional world created was breathlessly exciting and totally shattering. Corr is owed credit for an absolutely searing forte, a cantilena of pure spiritual rapture before the music gradually vanishes, for Messiaen representing the eternal love of Jesus for the world. Youthful passion such as this did have its downside when the “infiniment lent” cello solo of the fourth movement could perhaps have been a bit more infinite, but Hannah Innes’ rich tone and superbly controlled dynamics more than made up for it.

I wonder if it was this tendency to err towards quicker tempos that meant the ensemble could occasionally be slightly ropey in the group movements; at any rate, pianist Morta Grigaliunate was always on hand to marshal the entries, and her near-enough flawless playing betrayed absolutely no psychological accession to the noise from outside. Playing the piano part is a rather thankless task in the quartet, owing both to the part’s extreme difficulty and lack of major solo moments. However, as ever with such roles, it requires total confidence and security, and Grigaliunate had both in spades.

Highest praise of the afternoon, though, must go to clarinettist Oliver Janes, whose third-movement clarinet solo demonstrated an awe-inspiring control of the instrument, and a musical maturity inspiring to see from such a young performer. To hold an audience’s attention with an orchestra is hard enough; to do so with a single one-line instrument takes fearsome musical concentration. Yet Janes, with total attention to detail in his phrasing, did just that from start to finish, and always with incredible technical security – some of the pianissimo (or less) entries were so quiet they sounded like they had already been waiting in the air around us, only needing Janes to bring them to our attention. Totally captivating playing which focused the audience back on the matter at hand – Messiaen – and, allowing us almost to forget the noise from outside the room, opened the door on a really exceptional, vivid performance.