- Quatuor pour la fin du temps, for violin, cello, clarinet & piano, I/22
While he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, Olivier Messiaen composed the "Quartet for the End of Time" in response to his "colored dreams," which had been induced by hunger. Apocalyptic visions of the angel Gabriel, surrounded by a swirling rainbow, inspired this deeply mystical and elevated work. The timbres of the instruments -- clarinet, violin, cello, and piano -- are thoroughly exploited, but less for effect than as embodiments of ideas. Messiaen's religious and musical concepts transcend convention, so the use of the instruments' varied colors for his unique expression should be seen as integral to the music's shape and substance, not as a catalog of novel sounds. The birdsongs, Indian additive rhythms, and unusual harmonic progressions that Messiaen employed may be examined in detail as innovative features, which they are, but the whole work -- one of the most ecstatic achievements of the twentieth century -- is greater than the sum of its theoretical parts. Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony Chamber Players play the quartet meticulously and yet with great energy in the striking unison passages. The finest playing comes in the fifth and eighth movements, where Messiaen's music is at its most sublime.