This year marks the centenary of the birth of French composer Olivier Messiaen, and the unique force of his musical voice seems to grow with each passing year. His signature work of chamber music, the "Quartet for the End of Time," opened the Boston Chamber Music Society's Friday concert.
Written while Messiaen was incarcerated in a POW camp in Germany, the piece takes its title from a passage in Revelation in which an angel descends from the sky and announces "There shall be time no longer." This apocalyptic image might seem to call for cataclysmic waves of sound, yet much of the music is strikingly spare and luminescent.
What the angel speaks of theologically, the composer enacts musically. Asymmetric passages played in unison, repeated patterns of chords, melodies that seem to spiral endlessly - all contribute to the feeling that our sense of musical time has been altered. A great performance of the Quartet feels like a vast elongation of a single moment, which seems to be over as soon as it starts.
There were moments when the BCMS players - clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg, violinist Erin Keefe, cellist Ronald Thomas, and pianist Mihae Lee - approached this high standard. Sternberg, substituting for Thomas Hill, gave a richly mysterious account of the solo third movement, "Abyss of the birds." And Keefe's playing in the closing "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" was hushed and rhapsodic. Elsewhere, though, Messiaen's ethereal music sounded earthbound, or perhaps timebound. This was especially true of "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets," which was noticeably short on fury.
Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat, D.929, may have seemed like an odd pairing with the Messiaen, yet it too plays with our notions of musical time. It's one of many lengthy works of the composer's last years, in which the force of his imagination seems to flow without restraint. The proportions are larger than we expect; the composer seems intent on taking the least efficient path and exploring many out-of-the-way bypaths.
Keefe, Thomas, and Lee were on surer ground here. The performance was vigorous and assured, though the ensemble's sound was somewhat dry. Lee coped especially well with the florid, high-wire piano part.