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A Lotus Blossoming

Audiophile Audition (USA)
Robert Moon

In his excellent program notes, Marc Moskovitz reveals that the title of this disc comes from the biographical similarities of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Both composers came from literary families, both fathers encouraged their musical interests, and both were trapped in the Nazi maelstrom of World War II, and both emerged, “like a lotus flower from the muddy depths” to fashion careers of musical distinction.

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1940-1) was the perfect vehicle to express the profound faith of its composer and his musical innovations. Messiaen was serving as a medical orderly in 1940 when he was captured by the Nazi’s and sent to Stalag VIIIA, a prisoner camp in Germany. Sympathetic German officers allowed him to compose a work for his musician prisoner–colleagues, who played the clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The premiere took place in the dead of winter, 1941, before several hundred prisoners and Nazi officials, who must have been dumbfounded and amazed. Imagine hearing a work that had a solo clarinet mimicking bird sounds, uneven rhythms, meditative moment, and the unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano, in the setting of a concentration camp! The inspiration for the work comes from the tenth chapter of the New Testament’sBook of Revelation,’ which Messiaen used to sustain his spirit during the first few months of deprivation in the camp. The phrase, “There will be no more waiting,” was attached to the work and refers to the difference between time, as we know it, and eternity. It’s an appropriate title, given the circumstances of the work’s creation, and one linked to Messiaen’s profound belief in God.

…... Clarinetist David Griffiths is stunning in the “Abyss of the Birds…. The performers are at their best in the fifth movement, “Praise of the Eternity of Jesus,” where the rich, reverberant recording multiplies its stunning beauty. “Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets” is gorgeously performed…The Seventh movement, “Clusters of Rainbows, For the Angel Who Announces the End of Time,” is played with an inviting sense of whimsy. The finale, “Praise of the Immortality of Jesus” is an apotheosis to ecstasy, and here, is played with passion and reverence. Messiaen’s brilliance in transforming objects (birds, colors, nature) into a musical language that express his deep love for God and humanity, while a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, makes the Quartet for the End of Time one of the great chamber music compositions. The Ensemble Liason’s performance may not always portray some of the subtle and darker elements of the work, but it is beautifully rendered and stunningly recorded.

The twenty-five-year-old Zemlinsky, steeped in the classical tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and, influenced by Brahms’ Clarinet Trio of 1891, wrote his Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano (1896) for a competition underwritten by Brahms. It’s a ripe, late Romantic work with lovely melodies (especially the bittersweet andante) and notable counterpoint, yet ultimately derivative of Dvorak and Brahms. The Ensemble Liason performs it leisurely in the Brahmsian tradition. Zemlinsky became Schoenberg’s only teacher, and an excellent conductor, especially of modern scores (he was Klemperer’s assistant at the radical Kroll Opera in pre Nazi Berlin). But, he composed large, sumptuous orchestral works (Lyric Symphony). He also had an affair with Alma Schindler, who rejected him for Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky fled the Nazi regime in 1938, landed in America, where he died alone and forgotten.

This is a superbly produced and recorded album that will captivate clarinet aficionados.