By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
French composer Olivier Messiaen was in his early 30s at the outbreak of WWII when he was drafted into the army. He was captured in northeast France (Verdun, the site of one of the longest-lasting battles in WWI) and in May of 1940 transported to the German POW camp Stalag VIII-A. While held captive he wrote one of his most famous and enduring works, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”), a nearly hour-long chamber piece which contemplates the eternal.
As part of its 75th anniversary season, University of Chicago Presents (UCP) is bringing back many of its most popular artists from the past. Last Friday night it was clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, who performed Messiaen’s quartet with three UCP newcomers: violinist Elena Urioste, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Michael Brown. It was a marvelous performance of intriguing music, full of emotion and power — both from the score and the musicians.
Messiaen and three other prisoners gave the world premiere in the POW camp in January of 1941, outside in the cold, using poor instruments, Fiterstein noted in brief remarks to the audience. Even in such a somber and uncertain environment, the composer’s music was given such respect by its first audience that, as Fiterstein noted, the composer later said, “Never have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.”
In the preface to the score, Messiaen writes that the work was inspired by the Book of Revelation, specifically: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire… and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever and ever… that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…”
There are prefatory notes for each of the eight movements (which were usefully included in the program notes) so the listener has a clear idea of what the composer is trying to convey. The opening Crystal Liturgy contains birdsong (a lifelong interest for Messiaen). The blackbird music on the clarinet and the nightingale solo of the violin were earthy and nicely juxtaposed with the otherworldly sounds that the quartet reaches after the birds have flown higher and higher. The four players were able to create a beautiful sense of what Messiaen described as “the harmonious silence of heaven.”
The following Vocalise drew from the musicians a picture of a mighty angel with one foot on the ocean and the other on earth. In the middle of this are the harmonies of heaven. Pianist Brown was particularly effective in conveying the important shifts in mood.
The clarinet solo in Abyss of the Birds was splendid. Fiterstein gave the abyss a cold and dark sound while the birds were jubilant. The strings were richly gloomy in the Intermezzo, later becoming bright and vibrant, ending with a little giggle (not only in the music, but in the audience as well).
Praise to the Eternity of Jesus featured radiant work by cellist Canellakis, supported admirably by Brown on piano. The unison of the players in Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets was effective and the movement closed with a delicate whisper.
The playing was lucid for Clusters of Rainbows, and the music devoted to the angel was intense, featuring shocking slashes from the strings. The final movement, Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, highlighted the skillful playing of Urioste. She communicated yearning as well soaring nobility. The last note was feather soft, taking the listener — Messiaen hoped — into eternity.
The composer was released from the camp in May of 1941, and spent the rest of his life composing, performing, and teaching. He influenced a large number of students, including Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Peter Maxwell Davies. The multi-talented Quincy Jones studied with him. And two folks you might have bumped into on the streets of Hyde Park studied with him as well: UChicago professors Easley Blackwood Jr. (emeritus) and Marta Ptaszynska.
The concert opened with Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Weinberg, a Polish refugee who fled to the Soviet Union to escape Hitler, is not a well-known composer, but this sonata must certainly result in many listeners from Mandel Hall that night giving him a second listen. The composer could not have asked for a more dedicated and committed exponent than Fiterstein, who navigated the score deftly. It calls for a large range of skills from the performer: from classical virtuosity to Klezmer brilliance. Fiterstein was up to the task. His clarinet sparkled and rumbled, sang and moaned. The long, meandering lines of the second movement were made into fascinating musical declarations. The Klezmer dance music was haunting and sinuous. The ornaments were thrown off with flair.
Pianist Brown was a worthy collaborator who mirrored Fiterstein’s moods as well as changes in dynamics and tempo like a matching glove. Together they created webs of sound that snagged listeners and held them in place. All three movements end quietly, and at the conclusion of the work the duo faded slowly away, as if they had melted into night mist. It was a splendid performance.