I wonder what effect the title of Selby and Friends’ latest concert “Troubled Souls” had on readers? It certainly didn’t apply to the performers who clearly enjoyed the occasion immensely.
They were; Julian Smiles well-known to all as, among others, the cellist of the Goldner quartet, Natalie Chee, who is concertmaster violinist for the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Lloyd Van’t Hoff, a dedicated clarinet soloist, and of course Kathryn herself on the piano.
I appreciated the introduction of each piece and Natalie told us about Beethoven’s deafness. Beethoven was certainty tormented by his inability to hear his own music and did contemplate suicide but it’s worth noting that he could be very personable and had a large and devoted circle of friends. He almost certainly was not deaf when he composed his variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” for piano trio in 1803 though his Ménière’s disease was already a factor when he revised it in 1816 and added a slow introduction.
This lengthy slow preliminary was particularly poignant and was followed by the main tune, said to be from a comic opera but also reminiscent of Papagena-Papageno from the Magic Flute which Beethoven would have heard. The sixth variation featured brilliant piano passages supported by pertinent single structural notes from the strings while roles were reversed in the seventh with a violin cello duet. The theme was brilliantly manipulated in the quiet, dwindling ending. Altogether an engaging work which was well suited to the trio’s brilliance.
No one can doubt that Schumann was troubled with his late illness attributed variously to opiate addiction and syphilis. He was only too aware of his affliction asking to be admitted to a clinic in case he should harm his wife or children.
His Trio in G minor is rarely played, perhaps surprisingly because it is cleverly written and approachable. A sad and passionate first movement was typical of the composer and themes were beautifully developed and intertwined and after a dramatic climax ended in a quiet pizzicato. The second movement, labelled “rather slow” was introspective with the piano dominating. A jumpily expressive Scherzo was punctuated by two trios, both typically more subdued while the Finale, labelled ” with humour” featured alternate dance and march like segments but ended with joyful major chords which reminded me of the beginning of his piano Quintet. A superb vehicle to show off the talents of the Trio.
The audience was suitably refreshed to listen to an unusual work by a composer who would have been as unfamiliar as his musical style. If Olivier Messiaen’s sole wasn’t tormented, it had every right to be. He was captured early in World War II and spent a year in a German Concentration Camp while at the end of the war, his wife to whom he was devoted for many years, suffered a postoperative stroke and had to be institutionalised.
As Julian Smiles explained before the work, “Quartet for the end of time” it was in Stalag Gorlitz that he composed the work and first performed it for three hundred inmates with instruments including a three stringed cello and a piano with many notes missing. Julian also mentioned his love of musical palindromic phrase and his synaesthesia in which music appeared to him in colours. Other musicians with this
capacity include Franz Liszt. Duke Ellington and Billy Joel. Among other attributes, Messiaen was a devout Catholic and a dedicated ornithologist both of which influenced his musical output.
The music is tonal rather than melodic and is in eight parts with lengthy descriptions by the composer. It is based on the book of Revelations Chapter X “I saw a mighty angel come down from heaven……..”.
- “Liturgy of Crystal” is described by Messiaen as a divine version of the Dawn Chorus. The clarinet entry was followed by string bird sounds reminiscent of the technique of Ross Edwards.
- Vocalise. Loud tormented passages on the piano encircled a quieter section which the composer described as blue/ orange!
- Abyss of the birds. “The abyss is time while the birds are the opposite….”. This was a long slow clarinet solo in which the soloist had prolonged notes which must have taxed his breathing capacity. Again the composer mentions rainbow colours.
- Interlude. A Scherzo in which the cellist had a beautiful sustained theme representing recollections.
- Eulogy to the eternity of Jesus. “In the beginning”. A slow superb melody on the cello using much vibrato with minimalistic piano accompaniment.
- Furious dance for the seven trumpets. This was the most rhythmical part with the four instruments playing together and the lower registers of the clarinet and piano representing the trumpeters of the Apocalypse while the final forte section was the composer’s idea of “purple fury”! There was an interesting event here in which we had the modern equivalent of a broken string namely a frozen iPad. (Many musicians now use ipads rather than sheet music). Of course, the quartet picked up on the interruption without a hitch and perhaps a bit of lightness was welcome.
- The Angel announces the end of time. A duo for piano and cello represented the rainbow of peace while the violin and piano joined in to herald the end of time in a section which was syncopated and almost jazzy.
- Praise to the immortality of Jesus. Here the violin took up the cello theme from 5 and the piano accompanied the ascending notes at the finish representing the ascent of Man towards God.
The work was certainly gripping and enveloping though I wonder whether I should first have listened to it without the composer’s notations. The audience was certainly appreciative and I think we all will now be seeking out other works by Messiaen. All in all a great concert with thoughtful programming and excellent playing by the quartet throughout.