on 1st April 2010
31st March 1.10pm at Little St Mary’s Church. Free.
The origins of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time have become something of a legend in contemporary classical music. As Cambridge Circus pianist Emma Chopourian told the audience at Little St Mary’s in a brief introductory talk, the 30-year-old composer had joined the French army soon after the start of World War 2 but was captured by the Nazis in 1940. Even while on his way to a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia however, Messiaen met up with a professional clarinetist.
At the grisly sounding Stalag 8A at Görlitz they discovered two other musicians among the inmates – a violinist and a cellist. And despite severe lack of food, intense cold and, presumably, fear for his life, Messiaen quickly composed this extraordinary score. Perhaps still more strangely, it was inspired by the Book of Revelations and was premiered by the four musicians to an audience of fellow prisoners!
Fifty minutes after we’d heard this fascinating story, at the very end of the performance, there was one of those magic moments. The final violin solo, played by Bruce Godfrey drifted into thin air like a plume of smoke, the piano chords faded to nothing, and there was intense silence. The musicians froze and during the thirty seconds before the applause began, people in the audience wrenched their thoughts away from the P-o-W camp, the angel of the apocalypse, the seven trumpets, the aurora borealis, or whatever. We were back in a peaceful church in Cambridge on a Wednesday afternoon, looking at the delicate tracery of the east window . . .
A little earlier there had been more magic when clarinetist Gareth Stuart had given a riveting account of the third movement. Again there was rapt attention as Gareth produced sounds that began on the very edge of audibility only to swell noisily and overwhelmingly. Bent notes, trills and fast melismas were all brilliantly realised, reminding us of one of Messiaen’s other preoccupations, birdsong. During the long solo not only did no one move a muscle but there was a profound silence. I almost began to wonder if they’d stopped the traffic in nearby Trumpington Street. Or, as I’ll probably start calling it any time now, Last Trumpington Street! (Did I really write that? In a serious review too?)
The fourth member of Cambridge Circus is cellist Helen Godfrey who handled her many solos with delicacy and sensitivity. Movement 5 – Louange à l’éternité de Jésus – is actually a piece for cello and piano, which also drew some stunningly poetic playing from Emma Chopourian. Movement 7 – Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel – starts in the same way, before the peaceful music is savagely interrupted by the two other instruments.
Only in the 6th movement, a demonic dance dubbed De la fureur, where all four instruments play in unison or an octave apart, was there some slight untidiness. This movement is as rhythmically complex as it is highly original, and for many it is the dramatic highlight of the work. But it’s also fiendishly difficult to keep together. The four members of Cambridge Circus clearly have an admirably democratic approach and great faith in each other as musicians, but sometimes it may be necessary for someone to look up, nod, and take the lead to ensure unanimity.
In fact despite their collective name all four musicians’ playing is characterised by modesty and understatement rather than showmanship. Their almost introverted approach had the texture of four friends quietly sharing something precious with each other with the audience looking on, rather than putting on an OTT performance. It’s good to report that in music which constantly aspires towards the mystical and meditative this thoughtful approach made a lot of sense.