International Chamber Music Season: Quartet for the end of time

Focusing on two chamber works composed in straitened circumstances during the Second World War, this The Rest is Noise concert featured top performers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Denis Kozhukhin and Jörg Widmann. This was chamber music of the highest order.

London Music:   © Olivier Messiaen in 1930
  © Olivier Messiaen in 1930
© Olivier Messiaen in 1930
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The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night's chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen's extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time"), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

A short talk before the concert with two of the musicians – Jörg Widmann and Denis Kozhukhin – explored some of the musical ideas inherent in both pieces, and offered some insights into the Messiaen in particular, from the performer's point of view. The Quartet is full of motifs and ideas now so familiar in Messiaen's music – his "flashes" and recurring themes, birdsong (evocatively expressed in the clarinet), plangent and sonorous chordal writing in the piano part (occasionally a little too strident in this performance), and unusual rhythmic patterns (drawn from Indian and Javanese music). Widmann described the music as "extreme to play", highlighting the technical demands placed upon the players, such as the importance of bowing in the violin and cello, and the composer's radical use of musical time, doing away with conventional ideas of time and, by doing so, in effect "suspending" time to create moments of intense stillness or meditation. The traditional ideas of "quartet" and ensemble writing are also challenged in this work: in fact, there are very few unison movements where all four instruments play together.

Long thought to be a pawn in the Soviet system, a different, more perplexing, view of Shostakovich has emerged in recent years, suggesting a composer whose surface emotional narrative is merely a veneer for a far more complex musical language – a minefield of anger, irony, sarcasm, and regret, laced with occasional hollow triumphs to appease the Soviet authorities and Stalin's henchmen. Musical codes and ciphers are used to express Shostakovich's struggles with his conscience and his distaste for the State machine. The Second Piano Trio was composed in the midst of the Second World War and was premièred in Leningrad in 1944. It is dedicated to Ivan Sollertinsky, a Russian polymath and musicologist, and a close friend of the composer, who had recently died. The work is a lament for both Sollertinsky and the victims of war in general, and is full of poignant references to Russian folksongs and Jewish music in the scales, rhythms and motifs embedded within it.

An anguished lament, redolent of peasant music, opens the first movement, heard in the cello in ghostly harmonics, superbly nuanced by Gautier Capuçon, before the music launches into a febrile fugue. The Allegro con brio is brutish and terse, full of slicing, bitter sounds in the violin and cello, the charismatic synergy between the brothers evident in their handling of this driven and unsettling waltz. In the third movement, an elegiac chord motif is heard in the piano, Kozhukhin displaying impressive control of both sound and silence. The final movement opens with an insistently martial, industrial tread, and is laced with gypsy rhythms and motifs, here turned sneering and cynical before petering out in a series of bleak reminiscences recalling the chorale of the Largo. This was a devastatingly powerful rendition of Shostakovich's music, all three performers marshalling the full weight of their technical and expressive forces to give a performance that was both compelling and heart-rending.

The story behind the composition of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is intriguing, and inspiring, and there can be few pieces of music created under such adversity. While interned at a camp in Nancy, Messiaen met a number of other musicians, including clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Etienne Pasquier. Inspired by their comradeship, and his own profound Christian faith, Messiaen wrote a piece for Akoka that would become the Quartet for the End of Time. Two months later, in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, he met violinist Jean le Boulaire. Messiaen persuaded the guards to keep him supplied with manuscript paper, the musicians practiced in the washrooms, and the Quartet for the End of Time was premièred in January 1941.

Messiaen wrote that "only music"enabled him to survive the severe deprivations and horrors of the camp, but the work's meditative, time-in-suspense quality was directly inspired by a passage in the Revelation of St John the Divine in the Apocrypha: "I saw a mighty angel, descending from heaven, clothed in a cloud, having a rainbow on his head", and Messiaen's own notes on the individual movements of the Quartet reveal the music's original inspiration, from the early morning awakening of the birds, to the mighty power of the angel, and the ascension of man to God. Such profound thoughts and ideas are powerfully expressed in the instrumentation of the individual movements. As in the Shostakovich, the technical demands of the work held no fear for these skilled musicians. Widmann's impressive command of his instrument, in particular in the Abîme des oiseaux, was equalled by his highly expressive and characterful playing, bringing Messiaen's beloved birds to life in both sound and gesture.

The overall effect was searing, painful, beautiful. To see, and hear, four musicians so fully engaged in this timeless and transcendent music was extraordinarily powerful, and it seems appropriate to paraphrase Messiaen himself to describe the reaction of the audience: never before had we listened with such attention and understanding. The standing ovation at the end of the work was richly deserved: this was chamber music of the highest order.


Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975), Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op.67

Messiaen, Olivier (1908-1992), Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano


Renaud Capuçon, Violin

Gautier Capuçon, Cello

Denis Kozhukhin, Piano

Jörg Widmann, Clarinet

Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time has possibly the most intriguing story behind it of any piece composed in the 20th century. Taken to Germany as a prisoner of war in 1940, hunger and intense cold gave the French composer vivid dreams that evoked the Apocalypse.

The experience inspired Messiaen to write the transcendent eight-movement work, which received its premiere in front of fellow prisoners and guards. 'Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding,' Messiaen wrote of the performance.

Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio, composed and premiered in 1944, is a haunting lament for the tragic victims of World War II, and the horror of war in general.

Four renowned chamber musicians known for the full-blooded virtuosity of their performances - brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, competition-winning pianist Denis Kozhukhin and clarinettist-composer Jörg Widmann - combine for this concert.

Southbank Centre: Queen Elizabeth Hall

Belvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX

Image credits:
  © Olivier Messiaen in 1930