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Inscape performs ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ at National Gallery of Art

By Charles T. Downey,

In January 1941, Olivier Messiaen premiered his “Quartet for the End of Time,” in a performance by the composer and three other prisoners in a German war camp. Two months later, the National Gallery of Art was dedicated in Washington, to house the artworks collected by Andrew W. Mellon. The museum commemorated both of these anniversaries Sunday, with a performance of Messiaen’s landmark quartet in the West Garden Court of the West Building.

Like much of Messiaen’s music, the piece depicts a mystical scene, the cessation of the flow of time at the end of the world, based on words in the biblical book of Revelation. Rhythmic patterns drawn from classical Indian music, harmonies from Messiaen’s synesthesia-inspired vocabulary of chord colors, and the composer’s dissonant transcription of bird song converge to give the sense of time being suspended, by an angel heralded by trumpets in a “dance of fury” and crowned by rainbows.

This performance by members of the Inscape Chamber Music Project showcased the clarinet-playing of Evan R. Solomon, one of Inscape’s founders. In the third movement, “Abyss of the Birds” for solo clarinet, his tone appeared from nowhere and returned to it, with superlative breath control. He mastered the piece’s grand dynamic swells and extremes of register, making a pure, vibrato-less sound almost like the Ondes Martenot instrument. The noisy exodus of a large portion of the audience after this movement was surely an unfortunate coincidence. Pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn contributed crashing fortissimo chords but seemed a little impatient with her attacks in the expansive movements. Violinist Sarah D’Angelo was at her best in the final movement (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”), with a limpid, sweet melodic line curving around endless detours in a floating calmness.

— Charles T. Downey

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