Sunday 2 December 2007

Messiaen's tall tales: Peter Hill and the SCO Chamber Ensemble play the Quartet for the End of Time

It is rapidly becoming clear to me that the highlight of the SCO season is going to be these Sunday afternoon chamber concerts. For a start, they offer excellent value, where £12 buys you just an hour in the awful acoustic of St Cuthbert's church for a Cl@six concert, here it buys you a full couple of hours of glorious chamber music. The choice is a simple one.

This programme had been put together with an intelligence altogether absent from Elts' Invitation to Dance. Hill and the ensemble knew that you cannot possibly pair anything with the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (The Quartet for the End of Time, to those whose French is even more tenuous than mine). So instead of trying, or doing the obvious of not having anything (which still would have provided reasonable value), they chose instead to have Peter Hill give a talk. A noted Messiaen pianist, as anyone who has sampled his complete survey of the composer's piano music will be aware, he is also a scholar. According to the liner notes of his Messiaen recordings, he teaches at the University of Sheffield and has published books such as The Messiaen Companion, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring and a biography of Messiaen with Nigel Simeone, not to mention making over 100 programme for the BBC.

These talents were on display as he gave us a brief history of Messiaen's life, illustrated musically at various points (including a few beautiful minutes of the composer improvising on the organ at the end of a church service as the congregation were meant to be leaving, as the applause attested they didn't, the music was interestingly unlike anything he wrote for the organ). Hill told us how Messiaen exaggerated the circumstances of the composition within a POW camp during world war two (to which all French soldiers seemed to have taken their musical instruments), the bizarre congregation of a pianist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist and the quartet that resulted. But the cello did not, as the composer liked to relate, have only 3 strings, nor was the premier outside to 5000 prisoners (as Hill remarked, a suspiciously biblical number from this most religious person), but rather in the camp's theatre to 400, many of whom were guards. He walked us through the movements, several of which had been written prior to meeting of the quartet. He was an engaging and informative speaker, and his Sheffield students are lucky.

After a brief interval he was joined by three of the SCO's finest: cellist David Watkin, clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and violinish Christopher George. All four gave a superb and utterly compelling reading, and showed just how well served with fine players the SCO really is. It's difficult to write more. I don't know the work all that well, and my one recording doesn't compare, suffice to say I'm now looking for another. If I had one reservation, it is that George doesn't quite shine in the chamber setting quite so brightly as the other three, he lacks the panache of both Watkin and Martin. But it is a small quibble with a moving performance.

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