Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin des temps (Quartet for the end of time)
Stefan Jackiw: Violin
Yoonah Kim: Clarinet
Zlatomir Fung: Cello
Conrad Tao: Piano
Just when I thought that my 2018-2019 music season was over, I happened to notice more or less at the last minute Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin des temps on Bargemusic’s calendar, which I clearly do not check as often as I should. To make the offer even more attractive, it would be performed by fast-rising violinist Stefan Jackiw and three other no doubt equally talented youngsters too. And just like that, I decided that I simply had to go.
Quatuor pour la fin des temps is probably as famous for its compositional qualities as for its unique background. Thanks to a kind-hearted German officer, Messiaen was able to write it and then perform it with three other prisoners under dire conditions in a camp during World War II. Although I am not particularly big on the bible or birds, which were unsurprisingly the two main sources of inspiration, the work’s atypical instrumental combination and its unique language immediately grabbed me the very first time I heard it, and before I knew its context, and has belonged to my short list of favorites ever since.
Friday evening is generally an eagerly awaited time for obvious reasons, but last Friday evening I was even more excited than usual as I was crossing the East River to Brooklyn. After hanging out a bit in Dumbo among its relentless throngs of visitors on a beautiful almost-summer night, I went down “New York City’s floating concert hall” for the 7 P.M. concert, an early time that fit into my schedule very well, but that may have cost the performance venue a sizable portion of the happy hour-inclined audience.
Counting eight movements and running about fifty minutes, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin des temps presents countless challenges in terms of not only technique, but expressiveness as well. Those, however, did not stop the four musicians we had on the stage on Friday evening from delivering a poised, impeccably paced performance that readily conveyed the quasi-mystical nature of the piece. This is not a journey that the quartet or the audience can take on lightly, but, when done well, its rewards are priceless for all.
For all the powerful turbulences throughout the work, there are also moments of heavenly serenity, which may be the most difficult mood to nail of them all, but which came out beautifully on Friday in spite of all the non-stop agitation outside. As the musicians started playing, the boldness and grandeur of the endeavor filled the cozy space while the small pointed details and unusual sound combinations were expertly shaped. The superbly virtuosic solos for clarinet, cello and violin were limpid, confident and gripping.
With the barge’s serious swaying occasionally adding a light touch of surrealism to the whole experience, this was definitely a journey worth taking, even if we in theory at least all stayed in place.