Olivier Messiaen's "Quatuor pour la fin du Temps" (Quartet for the end of Time), which was performed last night at the Library of Congress, was composed and premiered in a German prison camp during World War II. The available instruments and performers happened to be a piano (played by the composer, one of the notable organists of our time), violin, clarinet and cello.
Legend has it that some of the keys on the piano did not work, and that may account for the kind of bleak, cool chords the composer alloted to himself through most of the music's eight sections. But understatement, hints rather than assertions and large, empty spaces in the harmonies are an essential part of this mystical, other-worldly music, which sounds today like a precursor of the minimalism that became a significant trend in the 1970s.
Section titles such as "Halo of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of Time" make the music sound like a riot of colors, but much of it is monochromatic, often featuring a single instrument. Again and again, in one pivotal section for unaccompanied clarinet, a single note is slowly drawn out of inaudibility, swelled gradually to a peak of loudness and then dissolved into a melodic line. This is perhaps the most spectacular section of the work--spectacular in a way completely unrelated to the virtuoso displays of the 19th century, but there are comparable highlights for the violin and cello, together and individually: passages in which there is a sense of tremendous power channeled with extraordinary restraint.
The "Quartet for the end of Time" is unique not only in the work of its composer but in the entire body of music that emerged from the experience of World War II. Nearly an hour passes between the opening clarinet motif and the final, long-held, high violin note's fading into eternity, but it seems like a mere moment of serene contemplation.
The performance by pianist Alexis Galpe'rine, clarinetist Loren Kitt, cellist Carter Bray and pianist Hugh Wolff was completely suited to the music's extraordinary demands--a breathtaking experience.
After intermission, the same artists (minus Kitt and plus violinist Junko Ohtsu and violist Miles Hoffman) played a work of almost equal length and completely contrasting style, Dvorak's busily melodic Quintet in A. As though to celebrate their release from the restraint demanded by Messiaen (or perhaps to keep the program from running overtime), they used some of the fastest tempos I have ever heard. There were a couple of lapses in ensemble (not always at top speed) and a few momentary intonation problems in the strings, but most of the time the players showed an almost telepathic togetherness. It was both impressive and enjoyable.