Olivier Messiaen - Hebrides Ensemble - BBC Online

A particularly evocative description exists of the 1941 premiere of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The performance took place far away from the comfortable happiness of a concert hall; a hut in Stalag VIII-A, the German Prisoner-of-war camp in which Messiaen was interned and where he had written the work. Yet despite, or perhaps because of the appalling situation, this was a special performance. The French-language camp newspaper later recounted that ''the last note was followed by a moment of silence which established the sovereign mastery of the music''. For the Hebrides Ensemble's performance of this work to grip me in a similar spell through a CD player in a comfortable London flat, is testament to the breathtaking sensitivity and depth of their playing.

Aside from Quatuor pour la fin du temps, this disc also includes Theme et variations, Piece pour piano et quatuor a cordes, Le Merle noir, plus the premiere recording of the recently rediscovered Fantaisie for violin and piano, which Messiaen wrote to play in concert with his wife. The piece is typical Messiaen; bold octaves in the piano precede the violin's entry in a descending motif which is reminiscent of the birdsong the composer loved so much to emulate. The Hebrides Ensemble's performance here and across the disc is outstanding. Returning to the Quatuor pour le fin du temps, their sound evokes both the work's wartime genesis and its religious intensity; the third movement for solo clarinet, Abime des oiseaux (The Abyss of the Birds) mixes the bleakness of Messiaen's surroundings with apocalyptic vision, whilst the two Louanges for solo cello and solo violin carry an otherwordly sense of peace and eternity. You can't help but imagine that first audience, imprisoned far from home, heads filled with the horrors of war, taking respite in the music. The interpretations of the other works on this CD are no less arresting.

Messiaen fans will want to buy this CD for the recording of Fantaisie alone. However, this disc is more than just a premiere recording. This is special playing from a special group of musicians.

BBC Online
13 May 2008