While it is not unusual for chamber groups to form within a larger ensemble, this was no pared-down Australian Chamber Orchestra. The addition of piano, in the hands of visiting pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar, and Paul Dean’s clarinet in Messiaens Quartet for the End of Time made this a unique ensemble. Leader was the violinist Helena Rathbone, who with cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, was heard in both works. Christopher Moore, viola, and Maxime Bibeau double bass, had an early night, as they were needed only for the Schubert.
As must now be obvious, both the Messiaen and Schubert’s Piano Quintet, Trout, are scored for an unusual combinations of instruments, as they were written for the musicians available. But there the similarities end. The young Schubert was on holidays, Messiaen was incarcerated in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp and their very different circumstances are powerfully reflected in the music they wrote. Wisely, this concert program contained only these two works and of course, the Schubert had to be first.
From the first emphatic note the quintet’s sound was as mellow as it was vivace. Ashkar’s piano fitted easily with quartet of ACO musicians, thanks to his careful attention to signals from Rathbone. As well, his easy flowing pianistic style was well suited to Schubert, and the Trout in particular with its suggestion of water bubbling over stones in a brook.
In a performance that evidently delighted the audience, particular mention should be made of the way the violin articulated the melody, echoed by the piano in the first movement, and the beautifully-shaped, almost Mozartian sound of the second movement, andante. The third, an emphatic scherzo tossed phrases between the players before it surprisingly slowed, allowing a coda-like exploration of the theme. Notable were the extended trill on the piano and the fun that the viola and cello appeared to be having!
At last came the fourth movement, and the familiar melody which gave the Trout its name and that Schubert also used as the basis of a lilting song. It was inevitable that the performance would be judged on the basis of this section of the work, and the players did not disappoint. The cello beautifully articulated the melody, with a dialogue with the constantly flowing piano leading back into the well-known theme. Ashkar was equally at home with providing a gentle accompaniment or executing dazzling runs and arpeggios as in the instantly recognizable finale.
This was the final great showpiece for all players whose joy in their performance was evident. After interval, the excited buzz that followed the Schubert quickly died down, as if out of respect for the work that was to come. Messiaens Quartet for the End of Time was premiered January 15, 1941, in Stalag VIIIA in Gorlitz, with Jean Le Boulaire, violin; Henri Akoka, clarinet; Etienne Pasquier, cello and Olivier Messiaen at the piano. The composers dedication was ”In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who raises his hand towards Heaven saying: ‘There shall be no more time’.”
This is an immediately difficult work, both in its concept and its sound, let alone its troubled beginnings. But that is, of course, what makes it great, from the violin’s first taut, wintry sound to the crashing chords of the piano and the declamatory clarinet – and those were just the opening movements!
The third articulated a simple theme infused with sadness and here we were treated to the mastery of Paul Dean’s clarinet. His control of dynamics evoking birdcalls in an abyss was respectfully mirrored in the fine acoustics of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. It was an experience echoed by the Paean to the Eternity of Jesus in the fifth movement, with the two songs beautifully articulated by cellist Timo-Veikko Valve and matched by the sensitivity of Ashkars piano.
The contrasting Dance of fury, and then the final Welter of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of Time are where the work has been leading. Both the composition and the performance defy reviewing as the experience is entirely absorbing. I for one could not stand outside this great moment in the work. I do know that the performance was everything the composer could have hoped for and that many others in the audience felt the same way.
The evening ended with roars of applause and yet we left quietly, having been moved beyond the usual concert experience thanks to an almost transcendent realization of this unique work. Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Trout Quintet & Quartet for the End of Time Australian Chamber Orchestra SCHUBERT Piano Quintet, Trout MESSIAEN Quartet for the End of Time Helena Rathbone Violin Christopher Moore Viola Timo-Veikko Valve Cello Maxime Bibeau Double Bass Paul Dean Clarinet Saleem Abboud Ashkar Piano Melbourne Recital Centre July 16