Candlelight is faithful to Messiaen's `Quartet'

Music Column

May 06, 2008|By Tim Smith ... | Tim Smith ...,Sun Music Critic

If there is music in the next world, it may well sound like Olivier Messiaen's does in this one. Certainly no composer ever believed more fervently in an afterlife -- he was a devout Catholic -- or tried harder to translate that faith into notes.

Messiaen did so with particular profundity while behind barbed wire in a prisoner of war camp, shortly after the fall of France. His Quartet for the End of Time premiered in that camp before more than 5,000 fellow prisoners in 1941, a performance that must have seemed surreal at the time.

The long, eight-movement score is as difficult for players to master as it is for listeners to absorb. Even some titles of those individual movements give one pause: "Liturgy of Crystal," "Abyss of the Birds," "A Mingling of Rainbows for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time."

But once drawn into Messiaen's sonic world, it is easy to remain in rapt attention, even awe. That's how it was Sunday night at Second Presbyterian Church in the final Chamber Music by Candlelight program of the season. The last sounds -- a high, slender thread from the violin; soft piano chords, like ethereal bells -- stayed with me on the ride home and linger still as I write.

There's something about this musical/spiritual masterpiece that always gets me. The originality of the language, for one thing. Other than a slight touch of Ravel in the Interlude movement, the music sounds like nothing else, speaks like nothing else. A sensitive performance unleashes the strange power of melodic lines that spring from birdsong (Messiaen's lifelong obsession) and harmonic clusters that move with a logic and beauty all their own.

That effect was achieved Sunday. The performance featured three excellent members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- clarinetist Steven Barta, violinist Qing Li, cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn -- and the remarkable pianist Michael Sheppard. One or two details might have been tighter in execution, but the communicative force of the playing remained consistently impressive.

Barta delivered the solo "Abyss of the Birds" movement with exceptional vividness and control, including long, single-note crescendos that seemed to start on the far side of that abyss. Finkelshteyn maintained gripping tension and tonal richness in "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus," backed superbly by Sheppard, who provided the same expressive complement to the serene beauty of Li's playing in the time-suspending finale, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus."

Earlier, BSO violinist Greg Mulligan and pianist Lura Johnson-Lee delivered Grieg's C minor Sonata in warm, poetic fashion. And Ravel's exquisitely crafted String Quartet inspired stylish playing by the BSO's Andrew Wasyluszko and Gregory Kuperstein (violins), Peter Minkler (viola) and Seth Low (cello).

Pro Music Rara

Also wrapping up its season Sunday was Pro Musica Rara. The emphasis was on Beethoven, and his Moonlight Sonata provided a highpoint during the afternoon concert at Towson University's Center for the Arts.

Edmund Battersby played the well-worn piece on an instrument the composer would have known -- a fortepiano modeled after those made in Vienna, Austria, by Anton Walter. The opening music had a wonderfully gauzy atmosphere; the propulsive finale derived extra character from the fortepiano's buzz.

Battersby dropped a few notes along the way but phrased tellingly. He also did impressive work in Beethoven's Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 3, collaborating with violinist Cynthia Roberts and cellist Allen Whear. The musicians conveyed the mix of drama, charm and eloquence in the score, paying particular attention to the import of the quiet closing measures.

Articulation of Beethoven and Mozart pieces earlier in the program proved less consistent technically, but there were rewards in the phrasing.

Concert Artists

An operatic potpourri brought down the curtain on the Concert Artists of Baltimore's season Saturday night at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills.

Artistic director Edward Polochick would have been wiser to pack the concert with more choral numbers, since the choristers who stepped out front for solo work were not uniformly equipped with the resources to do the music full justice. They weren't all comfortable with acting out various scenes, either. (Rather than all the awkward theatrics, a stand-and-sing style would have been fine by me.)

The strongest individual efforts came from soprano Beth Stewart in the Act 1 finale from Verdi's La Traviata, delivered in a bright, agile voice; and soprano Sarah Berger, who sang the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust charmingly. Among the male soloists, tenor Heyk Chae and baritone Brendan Curran offered a good deal of style, but both lost solidity in the upper reaches.

Dynamic work came from the chorus in excerpts from Faust, Traviata and Verdi's Nabucco, as well as the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor. A smudge or two aside, the orchestra did admirable work all night. Polochick gave the players a chance to shine on their own in very characterful accounts of Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri Overture and "Dance of the Hours" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda.

Baltimore Opera chorus master and artistic administrator James Harp entertained the crowd with a punny, sometimes purply, not always to-the-point narration. He also got to serve as substitute conductor when Polochick, who has just the teensiest bit of ham in him, switched from stick to shtick, jumping off the podium to become the sixth singer in the Sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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