Two pieces so raw and cruel that they leave you turning your thoughts inwards. But while Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, composed soon after the Siege of Leningrad, shows the terrors of World War II, Massiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps – written during his imprisonment at the prisoner-of-war Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz – offers a glimmer of hope through faith, even during the darkest hours. Violinist James Ehnes, pianist Steven Osborne and cellist Alban Gerhardt captured the lamentations of Shostakovich's trio before they were joined by clarinettist Jean Johnson to evoke Messiaen's quartet at St John’s Smith Square as part of the Southbank Centre's Belief and Beyond Belief series.

Alban Gerhardt © Kaupo Kikkas
Alban Gerhardt
© Kaupo Kikkas

Shostakovich dedicated the piano trio to his dear friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who died only months after he had started writing the piece. But he also composed the work as a tribute to his pupil Veniamin Fleishman, who had died in Leningrad, and to the millions of victims of the Holocaust and those killed on Stalin’s order: “I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims but that’s impossible, and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all.” The Andante begins with bitterly strident cello harmonics at a vertiginous register, wailingly played by Gerhardt. It is followed by a deadeningly dark violin melody before turning into a brutal Scherzo. Where Ehnes seemed to hold back at times, both Osborne and Gerhardt savoured the Scherzo's frenetic humour. Striking piano chords that felt like needle points opened the Largo, accompanied by an anguished canon, superbly expressed, between violin and cello. With distinguished dynamics, all three musicians helped the finale’s Klezmer melodies erupt into a danse macabre – a reflection of the terrors of the Holocaust – and a horrifying outburst before the chorale of the Largo returned.

The Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a plea for faith and hope in moments of sheer hopelessness. Inspired by a passage from Revelation 10 (“I saw a mighty angel coming down from heaven […] saying: There shall be no more time.”), Messiaen added seven more movements to a short trio – which later became the Intermède – previously written for his fellow prisoners with himself at the piano, explaining that “Seven is the perfect number, the creation of six days, sanctified by the Divine Sabbath; prolonged to eternity [it] becomes the eight of unfailing light, of unalterable peace.” The quartet offered a sophisticated Liturgie de cristal with remote strings and piano and swift ensemble playing in the Intermède and the Danse de la fureur. Osborne convincingly opened the Vocalise for the Angel who announces the end of time with a well-balanced fortissimo and showed “blue-orange chords” which describe the arching rainbow of heaven. Jean Johnson was less convincing in the Abîme des oiseaux, a clarinet solo, which asks for a broader spectrum of dynamics on the edge of audibility and intuition than was delivered.

The two meditative duets for piano and cello, and piano and violin were both outstanding, praising the eternity and the immortality of Jesus respectively. With eyes closed, Gerhardt expressed the pain as well as the rays of hope, not only with his lamenting cello, but with every muscle of his face while Osborne let the piano fade to nothing in the second Louange. Ehnes’ tone was more down to earth, but he transcendently depicted the the violin’s slow ascent in pitch as man’s ascent towards God, where “All is love”.

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