by Brian Howe
Duke Performances Presents Akoka: After Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time
Page Auditorium, Durham
Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009
Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a work of apocalyptic beauty inspired by the book of Revelation, employs a spare and slightly unusual chamber ensemble: piano, clarinet, cello and violin. This was a matter of necessity, as Messiaen composed and premiered Quatuor in a German POW camp during World War II. He used what was available. New Yorker classical critic Alex Ross wrote that it “stops time with each performance,” and perhaps this is a matter of necessity as well: From Messiaen’s vantage, it must have seemed that little time was left.
To celebrate Messiaen’s centenary, Duke Performances gathered a world-class quartet to play Quatuor: clarinetist David Krakauer, cellist Matt Haimovitz, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and violinist Todd Reynolds. Krakauer demonstrated his uncanny breath control in the third movement, “Abyss of Birds”: For solo clarinet, the demanding part uses notes so quiet they’re almost subliminal, smoothly expanding into full-bodied tones. Burleson played with crisp aridity in the fifth movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” his chords winding down from behind a melancholy cello theme like a clock. The antic sixth movement, “Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets,” shattered the unearthly stillness of the fifth. The players froze between movements, as if only the music held them in the flow of time.
Quatuor was book-ended by two brief, derivative works, both of which focused on Henri Akoka, the piece’s original clarinetist, an Algerian Jew who was left behind in the prison camp when the Catholic Messiaen and the other two musicians (all French) were released. Krakauer’s Akoka began the night, a highly animated piece that showed off the clarinetist’s Klezmer bona fide. It seemed indebted to the woozily sliding notes of Quatuor, such as those appearing in the seventh movement.
DJ Socalled closed the night by building samples of Quatuor, found sounds and WWII radio broadcasts into a halting beatscape. The moments when the samples congealed into beats were satisfying, although the build-up could have been more fluid. Actually, the entire piece was rather jarring after the reverent hush of Quatuor’s final movement, especially when Socalled rapped a few out-of-place bars. But in a way, this was appropriate: True to its context, Quatuor finds chaotic reality repeatedly intruding on dreamy bliss, a juxtaposition that Socalled extended beyond the piece’s margins.