Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra join British pianist Matthew Schellhorn on this recording of some of Messiaen's most attractive chamber music. The featured work is the Quatuor pour le fin du Temps, which is recognized as one of the landmarks of twentieth century music, and which receives a sublime performance here. Perhaps the fact that spectacular recordings of the work are growing more and more common has to do with the fact that a new generation of performers has grown up with this music as classic core repertoire and didn't have to "learn" its idiom, because it was in their blood. In any case, these performers, pianist Schellhorn, violinist James Clark, cellist David Cohen, and clarinetist Barnaby Robson, deliver a heart-stoppingly beautiful performance. Technically, they are beyond reproach, but they also play with exquisitely subtle nuance of tempo, dynamics, and phrasing. The performance is warmly glowing, both in its tone colors and the performers' interpretive choices. The first movement has rarely sounded so much like actual birdsong, not simply musicians playing the transcription of the birdsong. The instrumental blend is gorgeous, thanks in part, no doubt, to excellent engineering; the all-unison Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes, is played with a rare unanimity; it's possible to hear it as the sound of a single multi-colored instrument. In the last movement (which can be heartstopping -- in a bad way -- because it's so dauntingly difficult, and the violin's long sustained, stratospheric final note can veer so easily out of tune and tarnish an otherwise fine performance), Clark plays with complete assurance and does in fact create and maintain the sense of timeless serenity the composer aimed for; when that final note does arrive with piercing purity, the effect is overwhelming.
The ensemble brings the same level of finesse and expressiveness to the other works, the very early Fantasie for piano and violin, the very late Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes, Le merle noir, and the world-premiere recording of the Debussian Morceau de lecture à vue (Sight-reading Piece), which Messiaen wrote as an exam piece for piano students. Signum's sound is beautifully engineered; natural and clean, with an excellent sense of presence. This recording would be an ideal introduction to Messiaen for anyone not familiar with his work, and listeners who love Quatuor pour le fin du Temps owe it to themselves to hear this stellar version.