Nicolas Altstaedt / Alexander Lonquich / Carolin Widmann / Jörg Widmann

Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

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Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was composed and given its premiere in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941; Messiaen later said that the audience there, which included German guards as well as the composer's fellow French prisoners, was the most attentive he had ever enjoyed. The work's title refers not only to the Apocalypse (or to the new one that seemed to be building in Europe), but to the drastic rhythmic experiments that came to fruition in the quartet, for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. Messiaen supplied his own little program for the piece, referring to birds, other natural phenomena, and religious ideas. This eight-movement piece has an odd mixture of subtlety and hair-trigger tension, and it tends to succeed best in committed live performances, which it receives here from a quartet of German musicians, recorded live at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. Even beyond the performances of the musicians themselves, the sound engineering of Reinhard Prosser ought to be commended to aspiring chamber music sound crews; he achieves a maximum of clarity with a minimum of extraneous noise that almost makes you forget you're listening to a live recording. Then, the immediacy of the almost supernaturally extended rhythms of the final "Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus" (Praise for the Immortality of Jesus) movement brings you back to the live presence in a striking way. The work is technically challenging, but the players (two of whom are apparently related) deliver a perfectly coordinated reading that does not lack for a spiritual dimension. A recording of this work that can stand with the classics, and at a midline price to boot.

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