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December 18, 2013 5:48 pm
Among the many chamber works written in the middle years of the 20th century, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps stands out. The work was composed while Messiaen was incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940-41 and the spirituality of the music is only enhanced by knowing the circumstances of how it was conceived and first performed.
Messiaen wrote for the players that happened to be with him at the camp in Silesia – a pianist, violinist, clarinettist and cellist (equipped with a cello with three strings). A few years ago Mitsuko Uchida performed the quartet in London with a group of young professional musicians, but this time she was back with leading members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
The recital had already been given in Berlin at the weekend and the rest of the programme was built around the Messiaen, using different combinations of the same instruments. Berg arranged the slow movement of his Chamber Concerto for piano trio right at the end of his life. Shortened in three places, the piece comes across with a newly concentrated melancholy, beautifully captured by Uchida and her two colleagues.
Schubert’s Notturno in E Flat Major, D. 897, was also written in the last year of its composer’s life. Like other late Schubert chamber works, it moves in ambitious dimensions of space and time. Uchida, so memorable in Schubert’s late piano sonatas, is completely at home in this world and her partnership with violinist Daishin Kashimoto, in particular, yielded long passages of the quietest intensity.
In the Messiaen each of the three players from the Berlin Philharmonic – Wenzel Fuchs, the clarinettist, ranging across the widest range of character in the lively birdsong of his solo; Ludwig Quandt, the softly spoken cellist; and Kashimoto, again impeccably expressive in the violin’s closing vision of eternity – offered playing of high quality. Uchida, as before, found both unsuspected power and colours of impressionist subtlety in the piano accompaniments. It is extraordinary to imagine the work’s premiere in front of the massed prisoners outside the camp in the pouring rain. Here, in the intimacy of Wigmore Hall, it felt like a private meditation, overheard in a spirit of trusted confidentiality.
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