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A Lotus Blossoming

Fanfare (US)
Maria Nockin

Zemlinsky wrote his trio in D Minor, his op. 3, for clarinet, cello, and piano. When he showed it to Johannes Brahms in 1895, the senior composer was seriously impressed with it and suggested that his publisher, Simrock, print it. The publisher, however, asked Zemlinsky to add a violin part that could be substituted for the clarinet if a standard piano trio wanted to perform it. Zemlinsky did not simply arrange the clarinet part for violin; he wrote a part specifically for the violin and, as a result, created a second trio. On this disc we have the beautiful, crimson-velvet clarinet version. It can make the listener forget today’s cares and mentally drift off into the world that the composer created. The music is a little bit like Brahms, but not so much as to be imitative. The clarinet line is low and brings out the instrument’s woody resonant tones. Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s smooth cello tones compliment them beautifully. The music is propulsive and its rhythms keep the tension present. Below all, however, is the excellent playing of the pianist, Timothy Young, who provides the magic carpet on which the interpretation of this deeply romantic work rides. The most comparable disc is one issued by Naxos in 2008 with clarientist Ernst Ottensamer, cellist Othmar Muller, and pianist Christopher Hinterhuber. Their playing is good if not exceptional, but I do not find it as entrancing as the rendition here.

In 1940, Olivier Messiaen was a prisoner of war in a German camp. It was there that he wrote the Quartet for the End of Time. Also in that camp were clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire, and cellist Etienne Pasquier. Their instruments were in very poor condition. The camp piano even had strings missing, so the composer wrote his music for the notes that could be played. Messiaen did not even have paper and pencil at his disposal, but a sympathetic guard obtained them for him. First, the composer wrote a short trio for the clarinet and strings. Later, he added a piano part, which he played. The quartet was premiered outdoors on a rainy day at Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany, which is now Zgorzelec, Poland. The composer said of the audience of 400 prisoners and their guards, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” The finished work that we hear now is in eight movements. First we hear “The Crystal Liturgy,” which reflects flashes of light and tells of the awakening of the birds. David Griffiths’s most capable clarinet is the blackbird and Wilma Smith’s singing violin is the nightingale. In the second movement an angel, swathed in clouds and a rainbow, announces the end of time. The birds then sing of the abyss, of sadness and of weariness. The fourth movement is a rhythmic and melodic interlude for violin and cello, and includes a very difficult clarinet part that Griffiths negotiates extremely well. The outwardly religious fifth movement shows us the graceful playing of cellist Bogosavljevic and pianist Young. “The Dance of Fury for Seven Trumpets” contains some of Messiaen’s most interesting rhythms. The penultimate movement is called “Tangle of Rainbows for the Angel who Announces the End of Time.” It is a dream vision of color and sound that precedes the finale, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.”

There are other recordings of this work, but some of them are not very satisfying. The 1989 RCA recording with Tashi was transferred from vinyl to CD with a loss of quality. The 1990 Deutsche Grammophon with Daniel Barenboim has a few sound problems as well. Thus, the present disc is a very good choice for today’s listener to these wonderfully thoughtful works.