Hebrides Ensemble

Messiaen: Chamber Works including Quatuor pour la fin du Temps

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This collection by the Edinburgh-based Hebrides Ensemble is valuable because it brings together all of Messiaen's mature chamber music. The works span his career, from the Thème et variations and Fantaisie, both for violin and piano, from 1932 and 1933, respectively, to his 1992 Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes, his last completed work. Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940-1941) is one his most important works, a landmark of twentieth century music, and Le merle noir for flute and piano (1952), is among his most often performed. The Hebrides Ensemble plays the Quartet for the End of Time with sensitivity to the composer's long lines and his metric flexibility. They bring a warmly humanistic sensibility to the music, emphasizing its expressively Romantic qualities. The fact that it sounds like a very fine performance of the quartet rather than an incandescent one may have to do with the engineering. The SACD has crystalline clarity and picks up every detail of the performance, and for this piece, that may not be an entirely good thing because the instruments seem too closely miked. For instance, clarinetist Maximiliano Martín plays with remarkable subtlety, but every breath is audible (and not always pretty), and every change of bowing in cellist William Conway's stratospheric sustained notes can be heard. There is a kind of chamber music in which those kinds of ancillary sounds are acceptable, but if there was ever a piece that demanded the illusion of an absolutely clean and pure performance, this is it. The sounds are somewhat less of a distraction on the rest of the recording because of the nature of the pieces; they aren't striving as overtly for a celestial transparency, but the piano is generally a little too resonant and boomy throughout. The very early works for violin and piano are especially attractive and intriguing; it's possible to hear some of the trademarks of the composer's style evolving, but they haven't quite fully gelled into the "Messiaen sound." The most successful work in terms of both performance and sound quality is the enigmatic little Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes, which is over almost as soon as it's started. The performances throughout are impassioned, so it's unfortunate that the miking detracts from their impact.

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