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Ludwig Van
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Album review: Gryphon Trio and James Campbell's soul-shaking Quartet for the End of Time

By John Terauds on November 6, 2012

The Gryphon Trio and James Campbell perform Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Whether or not you relate to modern art music, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time can shake the foundations of your soul, especially when played as powerfully as by the Gryphon Trio and clarinettist James Campbell in their new album for Montreal’s Analekta label.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Messiaen (1908-1992) blazed his own musical trail through the 20th century, even writing his own treatises on harmony repudiating the conventions of the 19th century. He wrote a lot of great music, much of it still in regular performance around the world, but there is something particularly special about the eight-movement work his wrote and premiered at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp, in 1941.

Le Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a series of meditations on the Book of Revelation and Messiaen’s own deep Christian spirituality, written in a such a way that all conventional ways of finding one’s temporal path through the piece are set askew. The piece is laid out in such a way that the listener is by made dizzy and disoriented and then suddenly embraced by a warm, soothing glow.

This is one of those pieces that truly needs to be experiencd live, in the tractor beam of a fine performance, for full emotional impact. But, when rendered with as much clarity, conviction and passion as by these four musicians, a darkened room, a comfortable place to recline, an excellent audio system and a silenced smartphone make a reasonable substitute for the concert hall.

A stunned audience at a Toronto Summer Music Festival heard Campbell and the Gryphons — violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys and pianist Jamie Parker — perform this piece three seasons ago. This album, recorded at the Banff Centre last spring, recaptures much of that energy.

Programming anything against the Messiaen Quartet is probably futile, but the Gryphons have gamely added two pieces they commissioned as complements. Toronto composer Alexina Louie’s Echoes of Time cleverly borrows from Messiaen’s piece to mentally prepare us for what’s to come. Then, to come down from the experience of listening to Quartet for the End of Time, before turning the room lights back on, we can drift back to this world with the sweet, gossamer reverie that is Valentin Silvestrov’s Fugitive Visions of Mozart.

For all the details on this album, click here.

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Here is a section from an April 1941 review from the Lumignon, the French newspaper published at Stalag VIII-A:

It was our good fortune to have witnessed in this camp the first performance of a masterpiece. And what’s strange is that in a prison barracks we felt just the same tumultuous and partisan atmosphere of some premières: latent as much with passionate acclaim as with angry denunciation. And while there was fervent enthusiasm in some rows, it was impossible not to sense the irritation in others. Reminiscences of the time speak of such a storm when one evening in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, The Rite of Spring was first performed. It’s often a mark of a work’s greatness that it has provoked conflict on the occasion of its birth. The last note was followed by a moment of silence which established the sovereign mastery of the work.

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I don’t feel comfortable assigning specific images to Messiaen’s piece, but a few years ago, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned an interesting visual response to the music, as played here by clarinettist David Shifrin, violinist Daniel Hope, violin, cellist Paul Watkins, and pianist Gilbert Kalish. The visual artist is Zack Smithey. The videos were conceived by Tristan Cook:

1. Mouvement VI: “Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes” (Fury’s dance for the seven trumpets)

2. Mouvement VII: “Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps” (Tangle of rainbows, for the angel announcing the end of time)

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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