La création du monde, Op.81 – Concert Suite for piano quintet
Dérive I for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and vibraphone
Tzigane, rapsodie de concert for violin and piano
Quatuor pour la fin du temps [Quartet for the End of Time] for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano
Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), David Shifrin (clarinet), Lily Francis, Daniel Hope & Yoon Kwon (violins), Richard O’Neill (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Wu Han & Gilbert Kalish (piano) and Ayano Kataoka (percussion)
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 3 October, 2008
Venue: Society for Ethical Culture, New York City
The Chamber Music Society’s concert, titled “From Beginning to End” (slyly referring to the titles of the works by Milhaud and Messiaen that bookended the program), showcased not only some of the most impressive 20th-century French chamber music but a very impressive range of artists, from young up-and-comers to veterans.
Darius Milhaud’s Concert Suite from La création du monde contains almost all of the music in what is the composer’s most well-known orchestral score, and the ensemble of youngish string players and pianist Wu Han brought out the Gershwinesque character of the music more effectively than any orchestral performance I’ve heard, particularly in the ‘Romance’, the blues-infused ‘Fugue’ that took on moods that were alternately lamenting and edgy, and while some of the languid material was not as atmospheric as one might have hoped, the quintet of musicians sunk their teeth into the incisive, rhythmically energetic music. The four string-players didn’t have the blend of more-experienced groups, but this actually worked to the music’s advantage, bringing greater contrast to Milhaud’s catchy rhythms and skilled counterpoint, and while the uneven acoustics of Society for Ethical Culture are far from ideal and tend to make instruments sound distant even up close, balances were excellent throughout.
Dérive I, built on melodic material derived from the last name of long-time Boulez champion Paul Sacher (E-flat [Es in German], A, C, B [H in German], E D [Re in French]), is characteristic of Boulez’s later work, opening with a barrage of trills and arpeggios that yield to a slowly paced section with a steady rhythmic pulse that sneakily doubles in tempo, then disappears in a coda of shifting, sustained sonorities. The balances in this work can be challenging, but the detailed, compelling and colourful playing from the ensemble revealed this unfolding short work – one of Boulez’s most melodic and accessible – in remarkable relief.
Daniel Hope is a genuine ‘triple-treat’ violinist, who has established himself as an impressive player of concerto repertoire, solo repertoire and chamber music. His rhapsodic approach to Ravel’s Tzigane saw the opening flourish conveyed with almost ferocious intensity; the alternating colourful and lyrical melodic material of the cadenza-like solo was conveyed with warmth before dissolving into the gypsy music which commences shortly after the entrance of the piano. Hope and Wu Han yielded music strongly reminiscent of Enescu and Hubay filtered through a Parisian salon. On strictly visual terms, the extrovert Hope and restrained Wu Han only looked to be polar opposites – they were in stunning artistic unity, ratcheting up the goosebump factor to as high as I’ve heard in this work.
Gilbert Kalish, David Shifrin and Paul Watkins joined Hope in Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written while the composer was a POW during World War Two. The players made the work seem more a chamber masterpiece of late-Romanticism than the mid-20th century, sometimes with a foot more firmly planted in the past than the work’s present (most notably in their Debussian realization of the ‘Intermezzo’) – and also brought a singing line to much of the work (that seems absent from too many performances of it), notably in the second movement ‘Vocalise for the Angel who Announces the End of Time’, the unaccompanied third movement ‘Abyss of the Birds’ for clarinet (which Shifrin played with not only enormous beauty but fearlessly wide dynamics), and the two-movement of ‘Praise to Jesus’ (the fifth movement for cello and piano centered on the theme of eternity, the final movement for violin and piano on immortality).
The opening movement, ‘Crystal Liturgy’, was one of the few that looked forward in this particular quartet of musicians’ approach, revealing portents of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie in the music’s contrapuntal material, each instrument playing independent, motivically-driven music that reveals itself as an intricately interwoven exposition in a single long phrase, including fragments of forthcoming music in the following movements. Watkins and Kalish were particularly impressive in the fifth movement, neither player overwrought nor overpowering until the fortissimo climax and the startling pianissimo melody that follows. The seventh movement, ‘Cluster of Rainbows for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time’, was conveyed with the feel of a French symphonic poem – gentle, melodic material interrupted by intense, almost Stravinskian outbursts, percussively played scale material, and motives from previous movements; the final grotesque transformation of the main theme, replete with trills and stabbing rhythmic piano ostinatos, was simply thrilling. Hope began the final movement in a less restrained manner than Watkins, but seamlessly metamorphosed the mood with Kalish in the work’s final, ecstatically hushed bars.
Taken as a whole, the four players made a convincing case for the work as a masterpiece of the twilight days of the Romantic era spread into the twentieth-century while betraying only a few hints of the revolution Messiaen’s music and pedagogy would trigger a decade later among a circle of talented avant-garde composers, including Boulez.