There are few pieces of music as absorbing, confusing, unnerving and transporting as Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time."
Each time I encounter the work -- the latest occasion came Sunday night at the season-opening concert for the Music in the Great Hall series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church -- I find myself awed all over again.
Everything about the Quartet is exceptional, starting with its premiere at Stalag VIIIA, a prisoner of war in Germany, in January 1941. Even when you take away some of the embellished versions of that story (a 2008 book by Rebecca Rischin sets the record straight), that first performance still conjures up awfully powerful images and emotions.
The complex score's heady religiosity remains fascinating, too.
You do not have to be up on the Book of Revelation to be pulled into Messiaen's contemplation on the Apocalypse. Or, in the two most mesermizing movements of the Quartet, the composer's way of offering "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" (the cello/piano fifth movement) and "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" (eighth and final movement, for violin and piano).
Every note, including all of those related in some way to birdsong, a lifelong Messiaen obsession, seems spontaneous, inevitable and, in one way or another, affirming. As the ever-incisive Alex Ross has written, "This is the music of one who expects paradise not only in a single awesome hereafter but also in the happenstance epiphanies of daily life."
Music in the Great Hall gathered an excellent group of players for the occasion, including the organization's former artistic director, the fine pianist Lura Johnson (she planned the 2014-15 season before leaving the helm).
It was quite a luxury to have clarinetist Anthony McGill on hand; he starts his new job as principal of the New York Philharmonic this week. It was also great to hear former Baltimore Symphony principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn again (he has been principal at Cincinnati Symphony since 2009). Completing the lineup was 23-year-old violinist Davide de Ascaniis, who demonstrated impressive skills.
Not everything went smoothly in the performance. Things sometimes turned ragged in the wonderfully jagged "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets," for example. But the musicians communicated the spirit of this sublimely spiritual composition with considerable power.
Not surprisingly, McGill sailed through the technical hazards of the "Abyss of Birds" movement. His command of tone, allowing him to start a note on the edge of farthest human hearing and let it blossom ever so slowly, one dynamic gradation at a time, proved especially valuable as the clarinetist tapped deeply into the music's mysteries.
Finkelshteyn offered golden tone and refined lyricism. He phrased the "Eternity" movement very poignantly, with sensitive support from Johnson (they had a glitch at the end, but that proved a minor matter).
De Ascaniis and Johnson maintained exquisite control in the finale, making it possible, even in an over-lit, over-warm church, to sense something otherworldly and sublime.
The program opened with a sturdy account of Brahms' B major Piano Trio, notable particularly for Johnson's crystalline articulation in the Scherzo and the surging expressive force that she, de Ascaniis and Finkelshteyn produced in the last movement.
Before the concert began, the audience was introduced to the new artistic director for Music in the Great Hall -- a violinist based in Vermont, Michael Dabroski. The new, local managing director is Michael Repper, the latest recipient of the BSO-Peabody Conductor Fellowship.
The organization has managed to hold on for four decades, no small feat. It will be interesting to see how it does with a new administrative team.