In Messiaen's centenary year, here's a chance for me to renew acquaintance with his best-known work. Based on a passage from the Book of Revelation, in which an angel announces that there shall be no more Time, part of the quartet was composed while Messiaen was in a POW camp, the rest being based on music he'd already written (including the clarinet solo Abime des oiseaux, written for fellow soldier Henri Ahoka who was now a fellow prisoner). The booklet notes reject the story that the first performance was before 5,000 prisoners, saying the audience was no more than 400. Either way, it was an impressive achievement.
The quartet begins with an evocation of early-morning birdsong from clarinet and violin, underpinned by piano and cello; its mood of expectation is followed in the second movement by one of mystery, depicting the angel, framed by a loud, powerful beginning and ending. The third movement is the clarinet solo, darkly contemplative before being briefly interrupted by more bird calls and then falling back into quiet desolation. Robert Plane's clarinet sound is wonderful here - soft and smooth but with no hint of sweetness. After this darkness, the cheerful dance of the following Intermede comes as quite a contrast, but fortunately not a jarring one. At times it's like cafe music, and very much light relief, coming as it does before a long slow movement for cello and piano. This reflection on "the eternity of Jesus" is filled with a questing nature, piano chords driving the cello on through joy and rapture but never achieving any resolution as such. This is the chance for cellist Alice Neary to shine, but Benjamin Frith's contribution is also stellar. Movement 6 strikes me as the least successful, though only in as much as it doesn't live up to the promise of its title, 'Dance of wrath' - I hear much drama and an impersonal sense of menace, but whether the absence of rage is down to me, the performers, or Messiaen I'm not sure. The angel returns in the next movement, 'Tangle of rainbows', an exotic light show of reflections and refractions, with odd cascading and exploding effects. The finale is another slow movement, in which the piano functions almost like a heart beat above which the violin slowly soars up; towards the end the piano rings out like bells as the violin ascends into the stratosphere and off into eternity. It's sheer beauty, marvellously done by Lucy Gould and Frith.
I'm very glad to have this disc - the other recording I own (a now-deleted Philips disc with performers Beths, Bijlsma, de Leeuw and Pieterson) has a dissatisfyingly harsh sound to it, and the Chandos is so much better. As to whether there are better versions out there, I can't say - what I can say is that I found this to be a powerful experience and suspect that anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very impressed.
The couplings may be an important decider for prospective buyers. The first track here is a solo piano version of the early (1930) piece Les Offrandes oubliees. It's in 3 sections, the outer ones contemplative, the middle one vigorous, and again has a religious theme. The following Theme et variations was a wedding present (1932) from Messiaen to his wife Claire Delbos, who was a violinist. It begins tenderly romantic but the variations become increasingly flashy before the piece culminates in a sort of glorious procession with a quiet ending. Both pieces are very much worth having, and again the performances are excellent.