Olivier Messiaen set himself one heck of a challenge with his Quartet For The End Of Time, a work written and performed in 1941 while a prisoner-of-war in Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz, Germany.
MacOpera: Quartet for the End of Time | Rating: *** | Glasgow University Concert Hall
How could it, written under such circumstances, do real service to its inspirational promise, that catastrophic image of the Angel of the Apocalypse - “There shall be time no longer” - in the book of Revelations?
Then again, how could it not? Premiered on an ice-cold January evening, and performed with fellow inmates, the prevailing mood among the prison audience - including the German guards - was no doubt one of misery and despair.
So maybe it’s not so surprising that Messiaen dreamed up a sequence of music for the prisoner ensemble he had at his disposal - an unlikely mix of piano, clarinet, violin and cello - that probes the extremities of the human spirit, its ability to escape into a heightened state of being, but does it in a way that leaves you with an enormous, timeless inner glow - a prison break in the metaphysical sense.
It was something of a disappointment that Saturday’s presentation of the work by musicians from MacOpera - Scott Mitchell (piano), Nicholas Ross (clarinet), Anthony Moffatt (violin) and Sarah Harrington (cello) - had to be decanted, due to a burst pipe, from Glasgow University Chapel (itself a war memorial) to the more grounded location of Glasgow University Concert Hall.
But I doubt I was alone among the expectant audience in thinking that maybe such rising-above-adversity would, to some extent, draw out something of the raw intensity that must have ignited the original wartime premiere. So did that happen?
To be honest, this was not a performance that lifted me out of my seat. It was accurate and sincere, with plentiful touches of magic, especially from Scott Mitchell, whose delicately nuanced pianism was the prime source of genuine musical depth. The cascading Gamelan-like chords in the Vocalise, then those that toll achingly against the solo violin in the final Louange à l”Immortalité de Jésus, were moments to savour.
But otherwise, the performance remained stubbornly earthbound.
The signs were there in the opening Liturgies de crystal, the individual lines undefined in character, thereby defeating its expository purpose. Nor did the explosions that open the Vocalise reach right into the soul.
Nicholas Ross found his way around the Abîme des Oiseaux with able dexterity, but this is a movement that plays on extremes of time and tone, on magical silences and sounds that emerge almost imperceptibly out of nothing. That dimension was absent.
Other key solo moments blew hot and cold, Sarah Harrington’s beautiful oaken tone not always consistent enough to fully sustain the spellbound passion of the cello line in Louange à l’Éternité; Anthony Moffat’s searing solo in the Louange à l”Immortalité tuning too often into the prosaic rather than the transcendent.
As a whole, it just didn’t take us where we wanted to go.