- Quatuor pour la fin du temps, for violin, cello, clarinet & piano, I/22
Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, incredible as it may seem, was conceived and written while the composer was captive in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. The Quartet was first performed at the camp by Messiaen and three other prisoners in the winter of 1941 with the composer playing an old, sticky-keyed piano. Two other prisoners somehow in possession of instruments played the clarinet and violin parts, and Etienne Pasquier, who had been escorted by German guards to a nearby town to buy a cello with money collected by his fellow prisoners, completed the ensemble. The Quartet was inspired by a passage from the "Revelation of St. John the Divine," the biblical tale of the apocalypse, and the work's eight movements reflect the hair-raising story of the end of time. Beginning quietly with the "Liturgy of crystal," described by Messiaen as the "harmonious silence of heaven," the work progresses through a variety of moods -- now tender and lyrical, now agitated -- and each instrument takes its turn in the soloist's spotlight. All four join together in the climactic, unison seventh movement, the "Tumult of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time," an intense, rhythmically angular movement that Messiaen called a "gyratory interlocking of superhuman sounds and colours." The work closes gently, as it began, with a lovely, eulogistic violin solo. Violinist Gil Shaham joins an international cast of musicians -- clarinetist Paul Meyer, cellist Jian Wang, and pianist Myung-Whun Chung -- in this highly musical, expertly realized performance of Messiaen's work. Even without the extraordinary story of its creation, the Quartet for the End of Time would be one of the great compositions of the 20th century. But the remarkable circumstances of its birth lend wonderment to this uplifting, moving music.