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Olivier Messiaen - Hebrides Ensemble - Audiophile Audition


29 May 2008
Audiophile Audition
John Sunier
4 Stars

This seems to be the first SACD incarnation of one of the 20th century's most important works of chamber music. Messiaen was one of the thousands of French soldiers rounded up by the Germans when northern France capitulated in 1940. He was eventually sent to a prison camp near Dresden, which had as fellow prisoners a violinist, a clarinetist and a cellist.  A cooperative guard hauled in a broken-down upright piano, and the composer put together his eight-movement Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, which was premiered at the camp in front of an audience of 5000.  The camp newspaper in French reported on the premiere and compared it to that of The Rite of Spring in 1913 - in that some in the audience passionately acclaimed the work while others angrily denounced it.

The instruments are presented in various combinations - duos, trios and so forth. Only at the beginning, in the sixth movement, and at the end do all the instruments play simultaneously.  The titles of the movements refer to the strongly Catholic Messiaen style, such as Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, but the very moving work may also be experienced as an abstract artistic entity.  The transparent surround sonics greatly aid the listener's experience of this amazing work.

The Theme and Variations was written in 1932 as a wedding present for Messiaen's new wife, Clare. It was the composer's first piece of instrumental chamber music, and an early review said it was "solidly constructed by a musicians who has studied counterpoint thoroughly..."  Le Merle noir (The Blackbird) was a flute solo continuing the many works in Messiaen's opera based on bird song.
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