JUNO Award Nomination for AKOKA: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

January 27, 2015
Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SOLO OR CHAMBER ENSEMBLE

Blanc / Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà / Analekta*Select

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time / David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz, Socalled, Jonathan Crow & Geoffrey Burleson / Oxingale*S.R.I.

Bartok: Chamber Works for Violin Vol. 3 / James Ehnes / Chandos*Naxos

Prokofiev: Sonates & Mélodies / Jonathan Crow & Paul Stewart /ATMA*Naxos

Ysaÿe Sonatas for Solo Violin / Karl Stobbe / Avie

 

Read the full list of nominees at: The Juno Awards

The Examiner: Haimovitz and O’Riley to tour with historically-informed Beethoven performances

January 5, 2015
Cover of the recording being discussed

Next month cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley will release their next duo album. Following up on their two-CD album Shuffle.Play.Listen, released by Oxingale Records in September of 2011, their new album will be “something completely different.” Its title isBEETHOVEN, Period. (including both punctuation marks); and it is another two-CD set. The Oxingale brand has been taken over by PentaTone classics, and the new album will be released on the new PENTATONE Oxingale Series label. The new recording is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.

The album title is to be read with the connotation that it presents recordings of historically-informed compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven for cello and piano performed on period instruments. In fact, two CDs are sufficient to hold all eight of Beethoven’s pieces for “pianoforte and violoncello” (as they are listed in the in the index of the Princeton University Press edition of Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s biography of the composer), five sonatas and three sets of variations. For the recordings Haimovitz played a 1710 cello made by the Venetian Matteo Gofriller with gut strings and an early nineteenth-century tailpiece; and O’Riley accompanied him on a Broadwood fortepiano made in 1823.

This release will be marked by an eight-city North American tour, during which O’Riley will sample a variety of fortepianos along the way (while Haimovitz will travel with his cello). These Beethoven performances should be a far cry from the Shuffle.Play.Listen repertoire, which interleaved major works from the twentieth-century repertoire with Bernard Herrmann’s suite of music he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on one CD and sampled the rock repertoire of groups such as Arcade Fire and Radiohead on the other. However, while at Harvard University Haimovitz wrote his senior thesis on the Beethoven sonatas; so these are likely to be highly informed interpretations, supplemented with extensive liner notes written by Haimovitz. The tour schedule will be as follows:

  • Thursday, January 29, 7:30 p.m., Northridge, California: Valley Performing Arts Center
  • Saturday, January 31, 8 p.m., Glendora, California: Haugh Performing Arts Center
  • Monday, February 2, 8 p.m., Seattle, Washington: Tractor Tavern
  • Tuesday, February 3, 7 p.m., Portland, Oregon: Millennium Records
  • Wednesday, February 4, 7:30 p.m., Portland, Oregon: live streaming of a house concert
  • Thursday, February 5, 9 p.m., Eugene, Oregon: Sam Bonds
  • Tuesday, February 10, 8 p.m., San Francisco, California: San Francisco Conservatory of Music
  • Wednesday, March 11, 7:30 p.m., Montreal, Quebec: Bourgie Concert Hall
  • Saturday, April 11, noon, New York, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Broadway World: Haimovitz and O’Riley Reunite for New Beethoven Tour

January 5, 2015

Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, two fearless musicians who have bonded over common musical passions of wide range and scope, reunite for BEETHOVEN, Period., an illuminating voyage back to the birth of the cello/piano genre with Beethoven’s Sonatas for Pianoforte and Cello. Grammy-nominated Matt Haimovitz, praised as a musical visionary in pushing the boundaries of classical music performance, and O’Riley, acclaimed for his engaging and deeply committed performances and known to millions as the host of NPR’s From the Top, turn back the clock to record for the first time on period instruments – Haimovitz’s Venetian Matteo Gofriller cello of 1710 set up with gut strings and an early 19th century tailpiece, and O’Riley with an 1823 original Broadwood fortepiano. The new recording on two SACDs is available internationally on February 1, 2015 on the PENTATONE Oxingale Series.

Haimovitz and O’Riley take BEETHOVEN, Period. on tour-sampling a variety of fortepianos en route-starting in Los Angeles on January 29, through April 11, when they perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.Complete tour dates and details below.

“Each time I approach Beethoven’s Sonatas and Variations for Piano and Cello is a life-affirming milestone,” says Haimovitz, who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the Beethoven Sonatas at Harvard University twenty years ago, “To grapple with the composer’s uncompromising vision, and his ideal of equality and balance. Yet, nothing could have prepared me and Chris for the revelation of exploring these works using period instruments. With this setup, the fact that the cello can easily overpower its partner changes everything. Suddenly, the consideration is no longer “how can the cello cut through the multi-voiced powerhouse of a concert grand piano,” but “how can it make room for the nuances of the 19th century fortepiano?””

For his part, O’Riley, who has recorded extensively on a variety of instruments, was amazed by the problem-free 1823 fortepiano: “It was exceedingly unexpected and astonishing to find that this nearly 200-year old instrument was in such immaculate condition. I’d place this in my Top Five instruments I’ve ever played.”

Finding the ideal tuning was also revelatory. While there were a variety of tunings in use in Beethoven’s Vienna, Matt and Chris found that their instruments resonated ideally at A=430, a microtone lower than the modern A=440 and higher than the Baroque A=415. “I think we all vibrate a little better at that pitch,” says O’Riley.

For Haimovitz and O’Riley, there is no more fascinating, influential, and documented figure than Beethoven. And, centuries before the duo blurred the lines between Radiohead and Stravinsky – as in their acclaimed Shuffle.Play.Listen for the Oxingale label – Beethoven had already embraced vernaculars within his music, using popular themes of the day by Mozart and Handel in his Variations. Returning to the cello and piano over three important periods in his career – early, middle, and late – Beethoven reveals his innermost struggles and triumphs as he marries the two disparate instruments, fearlessly unshackling the cello from its continuo origins, and confronting the challenges of its low voice in relation to the piano’s polyphony. Within a twenty-year period, Beethoven singlehandedly created and immortalized the genre.

Extensive liner notes by Matt Haimovitz explore further details and insights into the Sonatas and Variations -Opus 5, Opus 69, and the Opus 102 Sonatas, completed exactly 200 years ago, in 1815. Also in the notes, William Meredith, Director of The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, and Executive Director of The American Beethoven Society, discusses the 1823 Broadwood fortepiano used in the recording.

BEETHOVEN, Period. is the debut release on the PENTATONE Oxingale Series. Oxingale Records, the trailblazing artists’ label founded in 2000 by Matt Haimovitz and composer Luna Pearl Woolf, has joined forces with the Amsterdam-based label PENTATONE, renowned for its discerning artistic quality and superior audiophile technology. The international release of BEETHOVEN, Period. will be followed by new albums and reissues from Haimovitz, Woolf, and their musical collaborators – in SACD 5.1 surround sound and as high definition downloads – on the new PENTATONE Oxingale Series.

BEETHOVEN, Period. is a Tippet Rise Production. The recording was made possible by the American Beethoven Society.

Grammy-nominated Matt Haimovitz is acclaimed for both his tremendous artistry and as a musical visionary – pushing the boundaries of classical music performance, championing new music and initiating groundbreaking collaborations, all while mentoring an award-winning studio of young cellists at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal. Mr. Haimovitz made his debut at the age of 13, as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, and at 17 he made his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon with James Levine and theChicago Symphony Orchestra. Haimovitz’s recording career encompasses more than 20 years of award-winning work on Deutsche Grammophon and his own Oxingale Records. In 2000, he made waves with his Bach “Listening-Room” Tour, for which Haimovitz took Bach’s beloved cello suites out of the concert hall and into clubs. Haimovitz’s honors include the Concert Music Award from ASCAP, the Trailblazer Award from the American Music Center, the Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Grand Prix du Disque, and the Diapason d’Or.

Acclaimed for his engaging and deeply committed performances, pianist Christopher O’Riley is known to millions as the host of NPR’s From the Top, now in its fifteenth year on air. A guest soloist with virtually all of the major American orchestras, O’Riley has also performed recitals throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. O’Riley strives to introduce new audiences to classical music with an almost missionary zeal by performing piano arrangements of music by Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Pink Floyd, and Nirvana alongside traditional classical repertoire. A prolific recording artist, O’Riley has recorded for Sony Classical, Oxingale Records, RCA Red Seal, Decca, and Harmonia Mundi. He has received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and an equally coveted four-star review from Rolling Stone magazine.

Read at: Broadway World

The Examiner: Memorable recordings in 2014: GRAMMY nominations and beyond

December 26, 2014

Having made clear my discontent with the nominations for the 57th annual GRAMMYawards, I feel more than obliged to recognize that this was actually a rather good year for those who listen to recordings. One explanation for this difference of opinion may be found in the writings of Virgil Thomson recently collected as a single volume by Library of America. In one of his Herald Tribune columns, Thomson suggested that there were three kinds of audience. There is, of course, the “mass public,” there is the “musical audience,” which is more keenly aware of the technical aspects of execution, and there is the “intellectual audience,” that “wants culture with its music, wants information, historical perspectives, enlarged horizons.” My guess is that GRAMMY nominations tend to reflect the preferences of the mass public, while I have never tried to hide my intellectual stance.

Sometimes these two perspectives come into alignment. That was certainly the case with the Naxos recording of Darius Milhaud’s L’Orestie D’Eschyle, the first recording of the composer’s interpretation of Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy to be released in its entirety. This was a worthy project that could certainly not be faulted for its impressive execution. Perhaps the GRAMMY judges were particularly taken with the episode in “Les Choéphores” in which the murder of Clytemnestra is described, in true Greek chorus fashion, by spoken recitation, which, in true Milhaud fashion, is accompanied by fifteen percussionists and speaking chorus. Whatever the reason, this recording will be up against some very stiff competition in the “Best Opera” category (even if it is not, strictly speaking, an opera). It will probably be a long shot for the final award, but for me it stands as one of the most memorable recordings of 2014.

For the benefit of those who like “top ten” lists, I have no trouble recognizing nine other recordings, all of which did not seem to register strongly enough with the GRAMMY judges:

  • On the other hand the current judges seem to have favored David Krakauer for his Dreams & Prayers album. For my part, however, I felt that Oxingale’s release of Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Timeat the beginning of April was a far more significant event. The title refers to Henri Akoka, the Jewish clarinetist held in Stalag VIII-A, the same prisoner-of-war camp in which Messiaen was interned. It was during his imprisonment that Messiaen composed his famous quartet, and he worked closely with Akoka on the clarinet part. On this recording the other quartet performers are violinist Jonathan Crow, cellist Matt Haimovitz, and pianist Geoffrey Burleson; and the “reframing” part of the project includes some killer improvisation work from Krakauer, Since I first listened to this recording shortly after its release, this album has become my first choice when asked to recommend a good recording of Messiaen’s quartet.

By: Stephen Smoliar

Read entire article at: The Examiner

Oxingale Records and Pentatone Join Forces

December 16, 2014

OXINGALE RECORDS, the trailblazing artists’ label founded in 2000 by cellist Matt Haimovitz and composer Luna Pearl Woolf, is excited to announce that it is joining forces with PENTATONE, the classical music label renowned for its discerning artistic quality and superior audiophile technology. Beginning in 2015, new albums and reissues from Haimovitz and his musical collaborators will be available internationally – in SACD 5.1 surround sound and as high definition downloads – from the Amsterdam-based label under the PENTATONE OXINGALE series.

“15 years ago, Luna and I founded Oxingale to pave a way for us to share music that we are passionate about, with an audience that we believed was seeking meaning and musical adventure,” says Matt Haimovitz, continuing, “For us, classical music is a living, breathing art form. We started Oxingale to bring to life what has been in our minds and hearts, whether by composers working 300 years ago, newly inked works, or improvisations. The invitation to collaborate with PENTATONE is an affirmation. With our shared sense of artistic and sonic values, we look forward to bringing our vision and energy to a label which has shown an optimistic and uncompromising attitude in its contributions to culture and the future of classical music.”

“There was never any doubt for PENTATONE to join forces with OXINGALE Records,” says PENTATONE’s managing director, Dirk Jan Vink. “We believe the works of Oxingale artists bring a fantastic addition to our catalogue. With PENTATONE’s warm, dynamic and detailed sound capturing the superb works and performances of Oxingale’s artists, we look forward to bringing you a range of prestigious work in prime quality.”

The new collaboration launches on February 1, 2015 with the release of BEETHOVEN, Period., the complete collection of sonatas and variations for pianoforte and violoncello recorded on period instruments by Grammy-nominated cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley. Following later in the year are two more releases: Shuffle. Play. Listen, a groundbreaking recording, also with O’Riley, which saw Herrmann, Janacek and Stravinsky come together with Radiohead, the Cocteau Twins and John McLaughlin; and an all-Schubert album featuring the Arpeggione Sonata and the Cello Quintet. Also forthcoming is a 3-CD box set of Haimovitz’s solo cello recordings from the last 15 years, including 20 world premiere recordings and two newly released tracks: Orbit, by Philip Glass and a new arrangement of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter for solo cello by Woolf.

Founded in the year 2000, the Grammy Award-winning Oxingale Records is as committed to revelatory interpretations of the canonic repertoire as it is to riveting performances of works by recent and living composers. Under the new collaboration, Oxingale will continue to oversee its own A&R direction, while benefiting from the global distribution and marketing offered by PENTATONE.

Launched in 2010, Oxingale Music is the publishing arm of the label. Oxingale Music publishes the work of Luna Pearl Woolf plus a range of works by composers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Lewis Spratlan and Rome Prize-winner David Sanford. The Oxingale Music catalog includes a substantial library of music written for and premiered by Matt Haimovitz, most of which are recorded on Oxingale and will be released over time as part of the PENTATONE Oxingale Series.

This year, Oxingale Music launched a semi-annual composition competition aimed at expanding and enriching the repertoire for cello in unusual combinations and ensembles. Over 40 composers from 18 countries entered the 2014 competition, the winners of which will have their works premiered in February 2015.

 

Slipped Disc: Ebola and black holes: My night in Atlanta

October 21, 2014

The cellist Matt Haimovitz has sent us his experiences playing with the locked-out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. read and reflect. 

Hearing that I would be in town for a residency at Emory University, the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony reached out to me with the idea of an impromptu concert together. I have never before taken sides in a labor dispute, but my gut said, “Yes! In tumultuous times we need music more then ever, for the musicians, for the community, for music’s sake.”

Before confirming my participation, I polled some music industry folks whose expertise and opinions I respect. Nearly across the board I received stern warnings against participating in such a concert and “appearing to take sides” in the dispute. I was told “if you do this, you will never again be hired by a major symphony orchestra.”

I have never made life or artistic decisions based on that kind of consideration, so the warnings sounded hollow to me. … I do not profess to have any knowledge of the orchestra’s budget or deficit. Clearly there are issues to work out with the model. Will any symphony orchestra look the same 20 years from now? I doubt it, and I hope not. But I am a musician who is concerned about the priority and state of culture in our society today. If that debate were taking place, in good faith, with the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony, I would not have played. But it is not, and the decision to join them and make music was an easy one.”

I told my fellow musicians before we performed J.S. Bach, Osvaldo Golijov, David Sanford, Billy Strayhorn, Richard Prior, and Joseph Haydn, and I say it here: I am with you. Stand strong and lead us into the future as a role model for orchestras around the country. Stand up for the importance and relevance of music and culture in a time filled with the deafening noise of fear and mediocrity. I heard your voices and so did the audience on this night.

The evening following the performance with the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony, I was rehearsing a new concerto by composer/conductor Richard Prior at Emory University with the Emory Symphony Orchestra. Meters away, Amber Vinson, nurse-turned-Ebola-patient from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, was being escorted to the university hospital, by a surreal display of space-age sterility. On stage were young college faces concentrating on the shifting meters and new melodies of a freshly inked cello concerto, as just outside, a nurse was wrapped up in a cocoon, infected by a plague that could potentially kill millions. The proximity of a natural plague put everything that I had experienced the night before in a whole new light.

We need music more then ever to appeal to the better side of our human nature. We need music to replace fear with hope, silence with harmony, to lift our spirits, to open our minds and hearts to the world around us. Music of all the art forms is where we can hear so many voices simultaneously come together as one whole. The fight being fought by the Atlanta Symphony is not only about the lives and livelihood of 100-or-so musicians. It is about the struggle to lift our culture out of the black hole of bottom lines. This should not be a fight between an accountant and a musician, or a corporation and orchestra. It should be a discussion about what the symphony orchestra can be as an integral part of the community’s consciousness. I am with you Atlanta Symphony.

By: Matt Haimovitz

Read at: Slipped Disc

Everything That Rises: Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 50: Matt Haimovitz, “The Star-Spangled Banner”

September 14, 2014

Two hundred years ago – September 14, 2014 — Francis Scott Key composed “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” the song we now know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Eighty-three years ago, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was declared the national anthem.

Forty-five years ago, Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a Stratocaster and a wall of Marshall amplifiers during the Festival of Peace & Music near Woodstock, New York.

Twelve years ago, the cellist Matt Haimovitz played “The Star-Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix’s version – live at CBGB.  The story is told in Reinventing Bach. Haimovitz studied with Yo-Yo Ma, enrolled at Harvard, and then dropped out of college and the classical-music recital circuit at once. The gig at CBGB – in October 2002 – was just one gig in a tour of nightclubs, cafes and restaurants in support of a self-financed CD. He played three of Bach’s cello suites, a recent piece by a living composer, and a four-string acoustic reduction of the Hendrix anthem from Woodstock — rendering feedback, string bends, dive-bomb runs, and discordura, and interpolating a few bars of “Taps.”  TheWall Street Journal‘s critic griped that he couldn’t hear the cello over the clinking bottles.

Three years ago, Haimovitz played the Hendrixian “Star-Spangled Banner” at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street.

O say, can you hear …

By: Paul Elie

Read at: Everything That Rises

 

JohnMontanari.com: Album du jour: David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz, et al., “Akoka”

May 11, 2014
Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

On the cold and rainy night of January 15, 1941, in the unheated Barrack 27 of Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz, Germany, an audience of some 400 prisoners-of-war and guards listened in rapt silence as four musicians, performing on ramshackle instruments, gave the first performance of one of the great chamber works of the 20th century.  While it is doubtful that even the most devoted practitioner of historically-informed performance would want to recreate the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour le fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”), this amazing backstory adds even further resonance to a work of stunning originality, power and spirit.  (For the full story, Rebecca Rischin’s “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet” is highly recommended.)

What’s that?  You’ve never heard Messiaen’s Quartet?  Well then, you’re in for an extraordinary musical experience, one which will grow with each hearing.  In eight movements, variously scored for one, two, three or all four instruments, Messiaen combines his favorite preoccupations, such as birdsong, rhythmic and melodic symmetry, synesthesia (e.g., musical rainbows) and fervent, sentimental Catholicism into perhaps this incredibly original composer’s most accessible large-scale work.  Not for nothing has the Quartet appealed over the years to audiences steeped in psychedelia, mysticism, minimalism, new age philosophy, eastern religion and just about every other alternative life- or musical style associated with adventurous youth.

On their splendid, just-released 2008 live concert recording (with violinist Jonathan Crow and pianist Geoffrey Burleson), clarinetist David Krakauer and cellist Matt Haimovitz have framed the Quartet with a works that pay tribute to the remarkable clarinetist of its premiere, an Algerian Jew named Henri Akoka.  As prologue, the four musicians collaborate on a mostly-improvised, electronically-enhanced piece (credited to Krakauer) called “Akoka,” transforming elements of the Messiaen into a Klezmer-ish lament and dance filled with clarinet smears, cello scrapes (much like those Matt Haimovitz employed in his celebrated version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Anthem”), scratchy violin off-beats and strummed piano strings.

For the epilogue, Canadian producer Socalled (Josh Dolgin) “merges live samples of the musicians with old radio broadcasts, hiphop, cantorial singing and markers of time…” into a piece called “MEANWHILE…”  Of all the album’s ten tracks, this will probably age least well, especially its rapped passages.  For the present, it’s a stimulating modern commentary on a great musical work.

But it’s the performance of the Quartet that commends and rewards most of our attention here.  Not that there aren’t excellent alternative versions in the current discography, but this one can take its place with the best of them for both individual and ensemble excellence.  To cite just a few examples:  The quiet central passage of the 2nd movement, “Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time” has rarely been as mesmerizing.  David Krakauer’s superb rendition of the 3rd movement clarinet solo, “Abyss of the Birds,” is filled with personality, subtly reminding us that for all its mellow mellifluousness, the clarinet was also the instrument par excellence of the red light district, the shtetl and the Roma encampment.  And Matt Haimovitz’s modulation of both tone color and vibrato in the sublime 5th movement duo, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” are wondrous to hear — artistry of the highest order.

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is best experienced live — what great work isn’t?  In the meantime, and for keeps, this fine, imaginative CD is highly recommended, and will fit right into your shelf next to your Mahler, your Moby, your Moondog and your Mozart.  At least that’s where it is on my shelf.

By: John Montanari

Read at: JohnMontanari.com

The New York Times, ArtsBeat: Opera America Names Eight Grant Winners

April 2, 2014

Late last year, Opera America set out to encourage women composers to write new operas, and offered incentives, by way of a two-year grant program, underwritten by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The organization announced the first group of recipients of its Opera Grants for Female Composers on Tuesday. Eight composers, and their proposed projects, were chosen from among 112 eligible applicants. Each will receive a $12,500 grant to help develop her opera.

The winner composers (and projects) are Anna Clyne (“As Sudden Shut”); Michelle DiBucci (“Charlotte Salomon: Death and the Painter”); Laura Kaminsky (“As One”); Kristin Kuster (“Old Presque Isle”); Anne LeBaron (“Psyche & Delia”); Fang Man (“Golden Lily”); Sheila Silver (“A Thousand Splendid Suns”); and Luna Pearl Woolf (“The Pillar”).

The adjudication panel included the vocal coach Susan Ashbaker; the composers Douglas Cuomo and David T. Little; the mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer; and the librettist and composer Gene Scheer.

By: ALLAN KOZINN

Read at: The New York Times

The Examiner: Oxingale presents a stunning context for Messiaen on its latest release

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

Yesterday Oxingale released a new recording with a somewhat intimidating title, Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. This title definitely deserves points (and probably extra credit) for truth in advertising. It refers to Henri Akoka, a Jewish clarinetist who met Messiaen on the way to Stalag VIII-A, the prisoner-of-war camp to which Messiaen was sent when he was captured by the German army in June of 1940. While they were in transit to the camp, Messiaen worked up sketches for a clarinet solo that he showed to Akoka. Those sketches would eventually become the “Abîme des oiseaux” (abyss of birds) movement of his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps.” Once at the camp, Messiaen and Akoka met the violinist Jean le Boulaire and the cellist Étienne Pasquier. Messiaen wrote a short trio for clarinet, violin, and cello from which the full quartet eventually emerged and was first performed at the camp (“outdoors and in the rain,” as its Wikipedia page observes) on January 15, 1941 with Messiaen taking the piano part.

On this new recording the performers are Geoffrey Burleson on piano, David Krakauer on clarinet, Jonathan Crow on violin, and Matt Haimovitz on cello. It is, to say the least, one hell of an interpretation, combining connotations of highly free improvisation (as in “Abîme des oiseaux”) with the rhythmically demanding unison for the entire quartet in the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (dance of fury, for the seven trumpets), requiring the utmost precision for the required uniformity. However, in the midst of all the technical demands lies some of Messiaen’s most visceral efforts at composition. While this is probably a reflection of the composer’s deeply-felt commitment to the Catholic religion, I have previouslyconsidered the possibility that the entire composition is based on a misreading of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Thus, it is better to approach this music as a series of reflections of apocalyptic visions without worrying about whether or not those visions can be traced back to the New Testament.

In that respect this new recording establishes a context for Messiaen’s quartet that has more to do with the circumstances surrounding the original performers than with Messiaen’s personal articles of faith. It begins with “AKOKA,” which is an almost entirely improvised composition by Krakauer. This suggests (not necessarily accurately) that at least some of the passages that Messiaen composed may have been inspired by his listening to Akoka, le Boulaire, and Pasquier improvising on their respective instruments. It is thus at least remotely possible that “AKOKA” honors a significant precedent, since much of the music that Alban Berg composed for the violin part in his concerto emerged from his listening to improvisations by the violinist who commissioned the concerto, Louis Krasner.

Adventurous as “AKOKA” may be, as a prelude it is a bit modest in comparison with the postlude, entitled “MEANWHILE….” This is the work of Socalled, which is the name that composer Josh Dolgin assumes when he is working as a “beat architect.” The music (and, yes, I have no problem with calling it “music”) is a collage that mixes live samples of the four Messiaen performers with old radio broadcasts (news reports of the Nazi advances during the Second World War), hip-hop, Jewish liturgical incantation, and the steady beats of “markers of time.” Particularly impressive is when Socalled inserts an incessant club-scene beat behind that homophonic “Danse de la fureur” movement. On the one hand this mix affirms the precision with which that music was being played; but, at the same time, it refracts the apocalyptic denotations of the score through a jazzy lens, making for a provocative distortion of Messiaen’s original conception.

Haimovitz has been quoted as saying that the intention of the full program for this recording was to lift Messiaen’s quartet “out of the polite confines of a normal chamber music performance.” He and his colleagues have succeeded admirably; but it is worth noting that they are not the only ones inspired by this “mission statement.” Here in San Francisco in February of 2011, four of the musicians in Nonsemble 6 (originally formed by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to prepare a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 21 Pierrot Lunaire) performed Messiaen’s quartet in the Red Poppy Art House surrounded by eight paintings (one for each of the quartet’s movements) by Olivia Lam. Just as Messiaen’s score amounts to a highly individual reading of New Testament scripture, so can performances of this music reflect equally individual readings through other uses of auxiliary media.

By: Stephen Smoliar

Read at: The Examiner