Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Gould Piano Trio & Robert Plane

February 28, 2019 by
The Gould Piano Trio returned to Cardiff for another stellar chamber concert at Cardiff University’s School of Music. Composer Huw Watkins is a local face who has made his mark with music filled with clarity and charm. His Four Fables which premiered last year at the Three Choirs Festival, Hereford is heavily inspired by Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen. Watkin’s fairy tales are transposed into a world which wants to push tonality, yet never quite breaks the barrier. The music has an other worldly quality mostly in the scurrying piano, with deeply rooted harmonies the work is often full of joy, but needs an extra spice of experimentation for it to really feel magical.
Work from Cardiff University’s staff was next with Robert Fokkens and his Tracing Lines. Written for solo violin and cello, this is an often intriguing work inspired (Fokkens informs us) by Xhosa bow music from his native South Africa. The first movement would imply a simple structure, but further on would prove other wise in often harsh and virtuosic playing from Lucy Gould, with accompany drones from cellist Richard Lester. This was the surprise piece of the night, with an exotic feel and often noteworthy executions from both players.
Nothing can ever really prepare you to hear the music of Olivier Messiaen live. Here, in his Quartet for the End of Time (written in a PoW camp in WWII) lies a powerful work of chamber music, the likes of which has been rarely seen since. His deeply rooted Catholic faith is saturated into the entire piece, along with flashes of birdsong, often formulating colourful and shocking encounters. Even those with no faith (like myself) are easily moved by the emotive grip of the French composer’s music, such is its majesty. The fury expressed at times from the four musicians is hair-raising and the subtle moments as well, are a tonic to the juxtaposing aggressions.
Both string players and the clarinet get generous solos and the piano is a force of nature in and of itself, in this frantic yet blissful 45 minutes. The cello solo ‘Louange à l’Eternite de Jesus’ is the middle of the quartet and no doubt the most moving part. They say the cello weeps, here its blubbers, with Lester relishing each agonising note, as Benjamin Frith on piano plays perfect companion chords, also brilliant throughout. The clarinet part ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ is another solo of humongous proportions, masterfully tackled by Robert Plane. I’ve spoken before about his super human breath control, as extended notes ring out for an eternity, with chattering bird song following straight after. Gould’s concluding solo ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jesus’ is similar to the  cello spotlight, but still brims with light and hope, with a smattering of misery. The rhythmic vitality when all are playing is often another telling marker that defines the piece, such is Messiaen’s bravado and sensuality.

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