"Mozart and the End of Time"
August 15, 2006
When Time Stood Still|
By David Bratman
Music@Menlo's fourth season offered a miscellany of programming, each concert labeled "Mozart and ... " something or other. Listeners were left to decide for themselves how significant the suggested connections may have been between Mozart and his co-conspirators on the program.
This was certainly true of the final concert of the festival, performed on Thursday at St. Mark's in Palo Alto and repeated the next evening at the Menlo School. The program's title, "Mozart and the End of Time," enticingly alluded to the major non-Mozart work on the program, Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. What its performance most obviously had in common with Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, was the exquisite clarinet playing of Anthony McGill, currently principal with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Messiaen's Quatuor is not often played but it's a fascinating piece, the chamber music masterwork of a major composer who doesn't fit neatly into any of the standard schools. It is enticing both for its unusual instrumentation and the strange circumstances of its composition. Messiaen was a French soldier who spent World War II in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. There he found fellow prisoners who played the clarinet, violin, and cello and who were fortunate enough to have instruments with them. Messiaen himself played the camp's battered old upright piano. In the dreariness of imprisonment he took his inspiration from birdsong and from his deep Catholic faith: The work's title refers to the final trump in the book of Revelation.
Yet the Quatuor is only apocalyptic in certain parts of its eight movements: the dramatic appearances of the angel in the second and seventh movements; and the sixth movement "Dance of Fury," which the four instruments play mostly in unison in imitation of the seven trumpets of Revelation. The overall impression that the work leaves is of stillness within a bleak, dissonant beauty. The performers' ability to articulate the line and flow of the work within this context is key to its success. By that standard it was an excellent performance, somber and moving.
Messiaen kept his own piano part in the background, providing quietly dissonant supporting chords for the other musicians. Gilbert Kalish, although capable of barnstorming pianism, adjusted himself well to the spirit of the work, providing steady and unobtrusive chords even when playing fortissimo. Jorja Fleezanis's light, thin violin tone was appropriate for the birdsong of the first movement and the violin solo of the finale's "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus."The cello and clarinet, however, are the instruments to which the Quatuor really belongs. They have most of the solos and most of the challenges. Colin Carr put his cello confidently through a variety of paces, from glissandos in harmonics in the first movement to the long melody of the fifth movement's "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus." The latter has the improbable tempo marking of infiniment lent. It flowed thinly and quietly, with limited vibrato, like a prisoner's lament. The long central section of the second movement, for violin and cello together over a long series of softly falling piano chords, was an even finer display, never losing the thread or flow of the melody. Most remarkable of all, however, was the third movement, "Abyss of the Birds," a clarinet solo without accompaniment. The lights unobtrusively dropped, leaving McGill alone illuminated in deep shadow. He played the slow sections as if improvising, pausing before undertaking each of the long, single-note crescendos that burst over the audience. From these he plunged into the difficult birdsong fast sections, his expressive brows arching in parallel to the music. Altogether it was a riveting 50 minutes. The performers used Messiaen's simple means to show that music need not be structurally complex to be interesting, and likewise used his advanced harmonies to show that music need not be harmonically simple to be beautiful.
Patrick Castillo's program note informed the audience that Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, would fulfill the longing evoked by the Messiaen. It didn't quite work out that way. The quintet is a work of sheer beauty, to be sure, and the performers McGill, Fleezanis, and Carr were joined by Jennifer Frautschi on second violin and CarlaMaria Rodrigues on viola were fine. But perhaps only T.H. White's Merlin, who lived backward, could have heard it as a response to a work written 150 years later. Messiaen uses religious faith to seek and find answers. But the Mozart Quintet isn't seeking anything. It's just there. In this context, the work seemed almost naive, even evasive. The best thing to do was to put Messiaen aside from one's mind entirely, if possible, and adopt an 18th century mode of thinking.Judged on its own, the Clarinet Quintet is a colorful work of varying character. It opens with a concertante dialogue between clarinet and string quartet. The second movement is a song largely for clarinet, with the strings as simple accompaniment. Much of the finale buries the clarinet in what's almost an obbligato part. And in the first trio of the minuet movement, the clarinet is entirely silent. McGill played all his roles with complete smoothness and an unerring sense of taste. Fleezanis and Carr gave richer sounds than they had in the Messiaen, and blended well with the other players. Rodrigues was strong and incisive in the inner parts, but could have been more aggressive in her big solo, the lamenting third variation of the finale. Frautschi played smoothly in the falling chromatic runs in the same variation. The concert began with Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 904, performed on the piano by Claude Frank. His playing was a bit sloppy but plain and matter-of-fact, with a crispness evoking a harpsichord performance.
As with all the Music@Menlo concerts, a "Prelude Performance" by some of the festival's younger musicians preceded the evening's main event. These are always a real treat, rendered even more valuable by being free (and, in this case, not completely sold-out like the main show). Maya Hartman (piano), Tien-Hsin Wu and Andrew Beer (violins), Frank Shaw (viola), and Nicholas Canellakis (cello) gave a splendid rendition of César Franck's Piano Quintet. Theirs was a solid but not overweighty Germanic style that fit Franck's music better than it would apply to any other French composer. It did not sound like Brahms, but it could have been his relative.
They were followed by Gloria Chien (piano), Bella Hristova (violin), Edward Klorman (viola), and Jacqueline Choi (cello), in an all-around chipper version of Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493. The Franck seemed to mesh with the Mozart in a way that Messiaen did not. Despite the lack of any overlap in performers between the works, the Prelude had a unity that the main concert ultimately lacked.(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)
©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved