What to programme with Messiaen’s 1941 Quartet for the End of Time? Its unusual scoring for piano, violin, cello and clarinet was born of its origins as a work written and premiered in a German prisoner of war camp, for Stalag VIII-A had but a limited range of instruments and players. Here we had a pair of violin and piano works, so the star cello and clarinet players were kept back until the second half. The opening piece was also Messiaen, his Theme and Variations written in 1932 for his violinist first wife. The opening theme’s long notes and slow tempo announce a kinship with the Quartet, and Janine Jansen’s skill made the most of its noble eloquence. Her taste in the use of vibrato, which she deployed with a range from quite gentle to quite intense, was a feature throughout the evening. If the four variations that followed are more conventional in style, their successive increase in tempo was gauged very effectively by both players, right up to the vif et passionné fourth variation, which was ‘lively and passionate’ indeed. At the close, the touchingly tender delivery of the très lent return of the theme reminded us of the work’s origins as a wedding gift.

Janine Jansen © Sara Wilson | Decca
Janine Jansen
© Sara Wilson | Decca

We went then from early Messiaen to late Schubert, his Fantasy in C major for violin and piano D934 from 1827. Written for the Czech violinist Josef Slavik, it is perhaps the least lauded of all the substantial late works of the composer. It is often claimed that that is because Schubert had no great interest in virtuoso display, but also this particular fantasy form, unlike Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, somehow never quite holds together. Nonetheless the display elements were dazzling enough in the hands of Jansen and Lucas Debargue, as were the fine lyrical passages based on that slightly cloying song Sei mir gegrüsst. (Gerald Moore liked to challenge Schubert lovers to name their least favourite of his famous songs, and gave this one as his own nominee). The whole piece needs really committed advocacy, and that is what it had here, with no apology needing to be made for its occasional pedestrian passages. So if this 27-minute Fantasy still rather outstayed its welcome, for once we can blame the composer rather than his brilliant interpreters.

The second half line up added cellist Thorleif Thedéen and clarinettist Martin Fröst, so we had what the 1970s rock scene called a supergroup. This approach to the Quartet now almost seems to have superseded the option of adding a guest clarinettist to a normal piano trio. And it works well, even though the varied solo, duo and trio textures, with relatively few pages where all four players are involved, means top artists do an unusual amount of just sitting and listening to their colleagues. But at least they could then hear brilliant playing, for there was no weak link here.

Martin Fröst © Mats Bäcker
Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Perhaps the opening birdsong of the Liturgie du Cristal might have been better balanced, for the clarinet’s blackbird obscured the violin’s nightingale, but things soon settled down a persuasive account of the famously complex and innovative rhythms. Debargue’s fortissimo launching of the second movement soon shook off those avian twitterings, as the angel of the Book of Revelation announced the end of time, from which episode the work derived its inspiration. I wonder what players make of the description of this movement driven by Messiaen’s synaesthesia, “…the piano playing soft cascades of chords: blue and mauve, gold and green, red-violet, blue-orange – all dominated by steel-grey”. Whatever it really means, they made it all sound pretty colourful. The Abyss of the Birds is a clarinet solo, in which the single note crescendos from whispered ppp to ferocious fff, the birdsong flourishes, and the three octave range, held no terrors for Fröst.

The swift ensemble playing in Intermède, a trio for the clarinet and strings, and the sixth movement unison for all four players, sounded as if these musicians had played the work together many times, which I imagine is not the case. The two great linked meditative movements five and eight, in praise of the eternity and the immortality of Jesus are for cello and violin respectively, each with a steadily supportive piano accompaniment. These were the highlights, as perhaps the composer intended. For even without knowing the movement titles one might guess at the spiritual message they impart, certainly as performed so exquisitely by both Thedéen and Jansen, consummate both in tone and line. I wonder if the work can have sounded so absorbing on that freezing night in 1941, when first heard in Stalag VIII-A? Perhaps not, for though the capacity Wigmore Hall audience, many of them young, were held as raptly as that first audience apparently was, they could go home afterwards.