REVIEW: "The Crypt Sessions" Brings a Moment of Revelation in a Crypt
FEBRUARY 6, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
One of the most powerful musical works to have emerged from World War II, Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, received a performance in the Crypt of upper Harlem's Church of the Intercession that delivered on its power. The sold-out event was presented by The Crypt Sessions, a chamber music series curated by visionary Andrew Ousley, and featured a ensemble of luxury talents, violinist Stefan Jackiw, alongside cellist Jay Campbell, Yoonah Kim on the clarinet, and Orion Weiss at the piano.
Messiaen, French church organist, ornithologist, devout Catholic, and one of the most significant and original composers of the twentieth century, composed and premiered the Quartet under infamous circumstances. In summer of 1940, when Germany invaded France, Messiaen was among thousands of French soldiers made prisoner, eventually taken to Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp near Dresden. He befriended a violinist, cellist, and clarinetist, and with the assistance of a sympathetic guard, obtained manuscript paper, and eventually, a piano and the other necessary instruments, and penned this remarkable piece of chamber music, rehearsed in the camp's washrooms, and premiered in the winter of 1941 in the bitter cold, to a rapt audience of thousands.
Messiaen was a musician whose religious faith was a constant inspiration. The theme of the work is taken from the New Testament's Book of Revelation apocalypse, the scriptural story of an Angel proclaiming the end of days, raising his hand toward Heaven heralding, “There shall be no more time." The music seems timeless, as if it’s been there forever, like the elements of the universe. Or a glimpse into the space between experienced reality and the eternal, the ineffable. It is music of such spiritual clairvoyance that it could only be realized by someone whose devout religiosity is matched by immense creative imagination and artistic skill.
The Quartet is one of the most powerful works to respond to the War's events, and one of the most difficult, too. Technically, yes, there are formidable demands on each instrumentalist -- palindromic rhythms, exotic and chromatic harmonic underpinnings, and a range spanning the possibilities of each instrument. But also interpretively -- the tempo at times impossibly slow, requiring uncommon patience and a long-term sense of destination, a suspension of time.
Messiaen's masterpiece has challenges at both ends of the musical spectrum, but also, its noble response to the dire circumstances of its genesis, and the wit, theatrical drama, and other-worldly allure concocted within its pages demands it be heard in a setting befitting its profundity. Ousley's Crypt Sessions provided just that. The timeless Gothic Revival arches and candlelit ambiance of the Crypt provided the perfect space for a small, serious audience to commune with Messiaen and his approach to music and time.
The Quartet's musical language, which incorporates birdsong, plainchant, Messiaen's interest in synesthesia, and hints of mathematic rhythmic machinations, is multifaceted. But the power of the piece is best experienced as tonight’s audience did: by submitting willingly, heart and spirit, to ideas beyond the here and now.
Eight movements in total, the full compliment only plays fully together occasionally, and the players are frequently called upon to sit silently for extended periods of time. The first movement, "Crystal liturgy," of which Messiaen wrote in the score, "Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven." Here, the full quartet plays, but the multi-planed music is shimmery and soft, like a layer of dew as the day is dawning. Jackiw played the violin’s ppp birdsong fragments with the innocence and purity one hears in the forest. Weiss played the gentle, undulating chords in the piano with a glassiness that conjured the glinting warmth of a single sunbeam.
"Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time," the second movement, changes gears, evoking "the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello." Indeed, Campbell and Jackiw communed as one in the plaintive, mournful melody they play in the shocked-still middle section. This is followed by the "Abyss of birds", for solo clarinet. The composer wrote, "The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs." Kim's soulful playing filled the cavernous room, her sense of repose and urgency truly inspired. Especially impressive were the movement's three long tones that begin ppp (as soft as possible) and crescendo to fff (as loud as possible), and her use of silence. The fourth movement, an "Interlude" for the violin, cello, and clarinet, is a scherzo-like moment of irony, sharing some melodic echoes of the other movements, but lighter in character. The ensemble between the three players was refined and emphasized the wit in the writing.
The deeply committed Jay Campbell played the cello solo of the fifth movement, "Praise to the eternity of Jesus," with insightful expression and tonal curiosity. The sixth movement, a fiery exercise in unison for the four players called "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets," is treacherous. This ensemble tossed it off with aplomb. The seventh movement, "Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time" hearkens back to the second, with its flurry of bombast and every color in the rainbow in the dense thicket of notes and patterns, was impressive for the power harnessed by these star musicians. Weiss, in particular, deserves commendation for taking the score's complexities, and distilling them into relatable musical gestures. Not stingy with the wash of the sustain pedal, the moisture he applied to the piano part was generous, but not overly so. The piece's harmonic world meshed well with the Crypt's ingratiating acoustics.
But, as designed by Messiaen, the last movement, for violin and piano only, was the true moment of arrival. Unfolding at a painfully slow pace, the pulsing, warm chords support a long melody in the violin played unselfconsciously by Jackiw, his bow-arm fulfilling the imperturbably long phrases magnificently, the music rising from silence, to the ecstatic, and returning back to nothingness.
As played so brilliantly by Jackiw, Campbell, Kim, and Weiss, Messiaen's work of metaphysical healing was heart-stopping. The End of Time, indeed. At least, momentarily.
The next event presented by The Crypt Sessions will be:
March 7, 2019
Lucas Meachem, Baritone
Irina Meachem, Piano