Messiaen's Mystical Marvel

David Salness and Evelyn Elsing, above, and Sally McLain, below left, and Katherine Murdock performed Dutilleux's
David Salness and Evelyn Elsing, above, and Sally McLain, below left, and Katherine Murdock performed Dutilleux's "Ainsi la nuit" flawlessly. (By Stan Barouh)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

The French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was an extraordinary figure -- a Catholic mystic who found inspiration in the cries of birds and saw multicolored auras whenever he heard music. Few screenwriters would dare to invent the circumstances under which his best-known work was created.

The "Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps" ("Quartet for the End of Time") -- which the Left Bank Quartet played Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland -- is a 50-minute composition for piano, violin, cello and clarinet written while Messiaen was a prisoner of war in 1941. The four instruments were chosen because they were the only ones available to him; the piano was missing some notes and Messiaen took this into consideration while fashioning his piece. It was first performed in Stalag 8a, for what was a genuinely "captive audience" of 5,000 prisoners -- an apocalyptic time and setting for an apocalyptic piece.

Like most of Messiaen's works, the quartet combines disjunct melodies, complicated rhythms, an idiosyncratic sense of harmony and a dense formal structure in a manner that is subjective, passionate, extravagantly colorful and often swooningly romantic. Yet "Quartet for the End of Time" has proved enormously popular -- pianist Peter Serkin and his group Tashi used to play it at the New York rock club the Bottom Line in the 1970s -- and it has inspired at least two book-length studies.

The Left Bank Quartet, an outgrowth and continuation of the once-celebrated Theater Chamber Players, was augmented by clarinetist Loren Kitt and pianist Santiago Rodriguez. The performance tended to be on the brisk side -- the rapturous finale for piano and violin, which approximates the rhythm of a beating human heart, sounded as though it might have been played in the middle of a stress test -- but it was thoughtful, suitably intense and deeply musical throughout. As usual, the movement I generally skip when listening to this work on disc -- a long, lonely utterance for solo clarinet -- proved utterly fascinating in live performance, both musically and dramatically, as Kitt played it. And cellist Evelyn Elsing and Rodriguez made the most of the achingly beautiful duet "Louange à l'éternité de Jesus."

The program began with Henri Dutilleux's "Ainsi la nuit" (1976), the only string quartet the composer has finished to date (he is now in his early 90s). I'm always happy to listen to Dutilleux, an intelligent and refined composer who manages to combine what were once avant-garde instrumental techniques with a sure and generally easy-to-follow sense of musical narrative. But I confess that nothing he has written lingers long in my memory, nor have I ever felt impelled to search out more. The performance, however -- by violinists David Salness and Sally McLain, violist Katherine Murdock and Elsing -- could not have been more unified and attentive: The players seemed to breathe as one.

Salness joined forces with organist Scott Crowne for "The Assumption of the Virgin" by the 17th-century composer Heinrich Biber. This sonata is joyfully weird music, flamboyantly virtuosic for the violinist with starkly austere accompaniment from the organ; it could almost have been culled from one of those psychedelic English folk albums of the late 1960s -- Fairport Convention, say, or the Incredible String Band.

A group of University of Maryland students then took the stage with trumpeter Chris Gekker for another Biber piece, the Sonata in D for six trumpets, timpani and organ, and, if the playing was both more stiff and more rough-and-tumble than in the other performances on the program, the eager enthusiasm -- and the beauty of the music itself -- won a listener over.

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