Ravel: Piano Trio in A Minor
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time - James Campbell: Clarinet
After the resolutely contemporary concert by Yefim Bronfman and the New York Philharmonic on Monday, I was back in SubCulture's cozy little space on Thursday night for an intimate concert by the boundary-pushing Gryphon Trio, which would present two prominent 20th-century works written by two major French music luminaries. Just as the underground venue was celebrating its 4th month anniversary that evening, it was proving one more time its keen interest in offering high-quality performances in a casual setting.
While Ravel's Piano Trio is well-known for its overall engaging qualities, Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" is as famous for its ground-breaking nature as for its peculiar genesis. Written for the most part in the war camp of Görlitz, where the already established Messiaen was a prisoner during the winter of 1940-1941, the quartet prosaically owes its unusual combination of instruments because those, as well as musicians able to play them, were the only ones available on site. Add to that a music-loving German guard kind enough to provide paper and pen, and one of the most seminal works of the chamber music repertoire was born. Its very first audience was the few hundreds of camp members, including the guards, the prisoners and the quarantined, who attended the concert of January 15, 1941, the crushed body heat blissfully bringing the temperature inside the barrack to just above freezing. A fleeting ray of hope in humanity in spite of the apocalyptic world raging outside.
From its leisurely Basque-infused Modéré to its brilliantly vivacious Final: Animé, Ravel's Piano Trio is an attractive multi-faceted piece, and after a brief introduction by pianist James Parker, the Gryphon Trio made sure to vividly highlight all its complex intricacies, bright colors and rich sonorities for a truly enjoyable performance.
The "Quartet for the End of Time" being an unquestionably unusual composition, eminent guest clarinetist James Campbell took the time to introduce it with a few explanations and excerpts. Once those enlightening insights dispensed, we all eagerly embarked on a 50-minute spell-binding journey, Messiaen's masterwork boldly mixing up Biblical Revelations, Indian mysticism and bird songs. And nowhere was its quintessential uniqueness more obvious than in its technically daunting and emotionally haunting "Abyss of the Birds", during which the clarinet took center stage and seemingly lost itself in both time and the lack thereof. This remarkable feat even prompted frenetic applause from one lone audience member while the rest of us sat in stunned silent.
In "The Praise to the eternity of Jesus" it was the cello that very slowly unfolded its endless majestic lines. Not to be outdone, the violin impeccably rose in the "Praise to the immortality of Jesus", which concluded the piece with transcendental luminosity. A lot had to be admired in the team work as well, such as the four instruments whole-heartedly playing in unison for the "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets", or the glorious melodic chaos of the "Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Time". As we were listening to Messiaen stubbornly challenging the notion of time itself to dizzying effect, it was hard not to be in awe at the master's command of his craft in what had to be dire circumstances and mesmerized by the composition's spectacularly achieved timelessness and universality.