Explorations of Time with the Colorado Chamber Players
A review by Betsy Schwarm
The Colorado Chamber Players have long made a specialty of spotlighting music inspired by the Jewish experience of the 1930s/1940s. That repertoire comes complete with compelling backstories that flavor how one hears the music, even generations later, particularly as, all too often, those backstories reach tragic conclusions. For its season-closing concerts titled “City of Sorrows,” given April 4 and April 7, the ensemble paired two composers who brought a slightly different approach to that time-frame. The result was a program of emotional power and artistic excellence.
The program began with music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894 – 1942). A native of Prague, Schulhoff was Jewish, though his arrest and confinement by the Nazi regime had more to do with his membership in the Communist party and acceptance of Soviet citizenship than with religion. As a political prisoner, he was not sent to Theresienstadt with most of the other Jewish composers of his time, so he did not end his days in a musical milieu. His Violin Sonata no. 2, two movements of which began the CCP recital, predates Schulhoff’s arrest and premiered in 1929 in Geneva. Violinist Paul Primus and pianist Andrew Cooperstock deftly managed the contrasting moods of the first movement Allegro impetuoso, balancing vibrancy with anxiety-tinged poignancy. In passing phrases to each other, Primus and Cooperstock made a point of matching the expressive colors used by the one who had had it first. In the shorter second movement Andante, they made the most of its thoughtful musings, the long fading final tones being the perfect transition into the next work on the program.
In this case, “next” was also “featured,” as the Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) is more than enough for half a concert. Messiaen was Catholic, not Jewish, and his confinement in a German prison camp was due to being a prisoner-of-war, not one of conscience; the Frenchman had been captured after the fall of Verdun June 15, 1940. It was there, in Stalag 8a in Silesia, that he composed his Quartet for the End of Time, having persuaded a musically-sympathetic guard to provide paper and pencils. That guard also made it possible to perform the piece there in the camp January 15, 1941. What the prisoners and prison staff would have made of Messiaen’s extended reflections upon eternity and the Book of Revelations can only be imagined.
Fortunately, the Colorado Chamber Player’s audiences were better placed to appreciate the work’s intricacies and eccentricities. That word “eccentricities” is meant in the kindest way. Certainly, Messiaen’s use of off-kilter harmonies and fragments of birdsong, along with a mix of lyrical lines and driving rhythms, is his own very personal approach to the materials of music. Moreover, there’s the fact that, though it’s a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, Messiaen is ever shifting the combination of players required for any given movement, or even any given line: sometimes using all four, at other times three, two or even just one. However, the end result is compelling, as long as the performers engage fully with the material, which was certainly the case with the Colorado Chamber Players.
With a bit of re-arranging of the stage area, and introductory remarks by clarinetist Daniel Silver, the ensemble (Silver, with violinist Paul Primus, cellist Judith McIntyre Galecki, and pianist Andrew Cooperstock) was ready for Messiaen’s visionary masterpiece. The most thoughtful movements – the first movement Liturgie, and the fifth and eighth movement Louanges (Praise) – were given all the unhurried flow they deserved, as if one were floating dreamily in space. In both the first and fifth movements, Galecki’s cello brought an admirable purity of tone with subtle undertones of burgeoning passion. In the eighth movement Louange, Messiaen decided instead to bring the violin to the fore. The restful, haunting lines, offset by passages of increasing urgency, re-united the duo of Primus and Cooperstock, who had opened the recital with the Schulhoff sonata. One imagines that CCP chose the Schulhoff as the opening music so as to set a mood that, an hour later, Messaien would bring full circle in the final movement of his quartet. Especially impressive here was the perfect balance between these two players, Primus and Cooperstock clearly listening to one another at least as intently as was the audience as Quartet for the End of Time faded off into nothingness.
As for the fourth player in the quartet, clarinetist Daniel Silver proved as comfortable as his colleagues in managing Messiaen’s irregular rhythms and unusual harmonies. However, most impressive was his work in the third movement Abyss of the Birds, one of the quartet’s longest movements and the only one that leaves a single player entirely alone for the better part of ten minutes. Here, one is not falling despairingly into that abyss implied by the title, but rather gazing raptly about, fragments of birdsong making their way into one’s consciousness. It all comes from a single clarinet quite alone, a virtuosic test of technique, lungs, and lips: Silver’s work was flawless, keeping not only the audience, but also his three colleagues, on the edge of their seats.
At other places in the Messiaen Quartet, one finds at times a more propulsive energy. The second movement scurries, the sixth fumes; the second and seventh balance fearsome storms with calm interludes. In each, mood changes, from steadiness, to breathlessness, to anguish, may arrive abruptly and depart just as suddenly. The recurring challenge in any performance of Quartet for the End of Time is to make it all sound cohesive, rather than becoming a grab-bag of diverse musical effects. The Colorado Chamber Players managed this formidable task with apparent ease.
Kudos to CCP for choosing to pair these two works, and especially for daring to take on the rarely performed Messiaen, which the ensemble had last presented in Denver a dozen years earlier. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a work best appreciated live, rather than in recordings. Having the performers right there in the room with the listeners serves better to communicate its power. Its length and difficulties may prevent it from being frequently programmed, but listeners are strongly encouraged to seek it out – especially if it’s on a Colorado Chamber Players recital.