On Saturday evening, March 3, at St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Carmel Ensemble Monterey presented a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” The performers were clarinetist Erica Horn, violinist David Dally, cellist Margie Dally and pianist Lucy Faridany. This was a sold out performance. Ensemble Monterey’s Artistic Director John Anderson asked members of the audience to squeeze together to make more room for latecomers in each church pew, and many did just that. John Anderson’s program notes were almost as fascinating as the performance itself and contributed immensely to our understanding of Messiaen’s profoundly spiritual relation to his faith and his use of imagery from The Book of Revelations as an inspiration to this imaginative and compelling work.
Messiaen wrote and premiered this quartet in 1941 during the early years of World War II while a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A, in Görlitz, Poland. The first performance took place using patched up instruments, outdoors and in the rain. A large audience of prisoners attended. Messiaen later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” The Quartet for the End of Time is one of the most moving works of music composed in the 20th century and continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. Last night’s performance was only the second time I had heard a live performance of this work, and each time I have found it a life-changing experience.
It is the third movement of this work, “Abyss of the birds,” which continues to remain forever locked in my memory. As in the first performance I heard at Hidden Valley over thirty years ago with clarinetist Craig Olzenak, Erica Horn last night produced sounds you didn’t think possible as being able to come from a clarinet. There were several instances of her beginning a note so softly you weren’t even sure whether you were hearing a sound or an impossibly quiet breath of air, and then like magic the sound did emerge from the lowest levels of pianissimo and develop like magic into compelling and expressive phrases. Her multi layered performance revealed an artistry that was totally compelling.
Pianist Lucy Faridany, rather symbolically, considering that the initial performance of Messiaen’s work in 1941 was most probably on an instrument that had seen better days, gave an outstanding performance last night on a small Hardman grand piano that had also probably seen better days while formerly residing in someone’s living room. Surprise! Faridany, although not performing on an elegant nine-foot Steinway concert grand, nevertheless achieved a miracle of expertly controlled and blended sounds that alternated from silky smooth clusters of sounds accompanying the other instruments to mighty outbursts of dissonant chords commanding our attention and propelling us through the fascinating textures so characteristic of Messiaen’s compositional style. This was artistic playing of the highest order.
Violinist David Dally and his wife, cellist Margie Dally, each had their moments in the sun with compelling solos and compelling ensemble playing. All the parts of this amazing composition worked together to create a very moving performance. This was a concert to remember.