Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was once considered so difficult that it was rarely performed, but the technical competence and musical confidence of players has advanced so far in the half century since its composition that exceptionally fine recordings have become commonplace. The British ensemble the Fibonacci Sequence tackles the quartet with expertise and musicality, and even if the performance can't be counted among the truly transcendent, it still adds to the growing list of recordings that can be recommended. The star turn here comes from clarinetist Julian Farrell, who can let a tone emerge out of nothing and make it swell to immense proportions. He brings terrific musicality to the piece, and his seven-minute solo "Abyss of the birds" is a highlight of the album. He is also somewhat favored in the recording's balance, sometimes at the expense of the strings, but balance in this piece, in which subtle shadings can take on huge emotional significance, can be a matter of taste, and an argument can certainly be made for Farrell's prominence in the movements in which he's featured. Cellist Benjamin Hughes' tone is more textured, a little earthier, and less piercingly pure than that of players on some recordings, but the extra color is a valid choice for the music. Violinist Jack Liebeck's tone has similar characteristics, with a tendency almost toward graininess in the lower register, and the concluding solo really does require an ethereal purity that Liebeck doesn't quite convey. If this recording comes with any caveat, it's that both Liebeck and Hughes get wavery on their long sustained, impossibly high final notes. In the two movements in which the piano accompanies the cello and then the violin with deceptively simple repeated chords, everything depends on the pianist's responsiveness in giving each chord a precisely calibrated weight to support the soloist, and Kathron Sturrock does a fine, sensitive job. The ensemble in the treacherous unison movement Dance of Fury, for seven trumpets, is precise and exhilarating. The sound is exceptionally clean and clear.
One thing that might be a factor in the listener's decision about which recording of the piece to pursue is the fact that this release includes only the quartet, which, at 47 minutes, makes for a short CD, and many other worthy versions fill out their discs with other attractive chamber music by Messiaen.