The Quartet for The End of Time

Dear Professor Friedland:
I recently noticed that you are presenting a recital in February The Quartet for the End of Time. How does an established professional player like yourself go about preparing for a concert, particularly on a piece that you have performed many times before? Do you look for new interpretations of certain passages, revisit technically challenging areas, focus on the overall ensemble sections? What motivates you to come back and play a piece you have performed previously yet another time?
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Dear Sir:
Many thanks for your question concerning this very unique work. So much so, that there really exists no other work of its kind. It has a special feature, if it can be called that which sets this work apart from others. It has a strange reaction among the quartet, almost a uniting ability bordering on the spiritual that provides inensity that seems to surmount any of the ordinary preparation of a work of chamber music.
The performance of chamber music is the joy of any performing musician, however the Messiaen by its very existance transcends this joy. Knowledge of this mystical composer and the particular circumcstances of the composition and performance cuts through anything ordinary and the musicians feel almost a calling to perform this particular work exactly literally. Performing the written work with the utmost accuracy to the printed part rises above all.
Because of its importance, its length, (48 minutes) and the particular way in which all of the instruments unite to create this “larger than the music” whole, the work has to be the recreation of what the composer originally wrote, for there is no other way.
If one can imagine a Concentration Camp in Silesia in 1940, and the performance of this piece using whatever instruments available, which could not have been in perfect repair, an audience of 5000 inmates, the composer himself dressed in an old Czcech army uniform, and then the opening of the clarinet playing the part of the nightingale at three or four in the morning, (the time when many solo birds begin to sing), accompanied by the piano, cello and violin playing in harmonics and utterly strange and unrelated chords in pianissimo….well, that is enough to paint the opening spirituality of the work. Comparing the peace and tranquil nature of the opening with what must have been the reality shows the listener the power and the ability of the composer. It is enough. The rendering of this music must always be as perfect as is possible without condition of any kind. There is really no room for interpretation as such, although I have had different kinds of performances, they are always with the unity of purpose that only this music brings to the performer as well as the listener.
The strangest thing happened at my first performance of this work. During the very long clarinet solo passage, which was going perfectly, the fire alarm went off(Pollack Hall, Montreal) and it did not stop, continuing while one by one, the audience left the hall, until finally only we were there, and then finally only me. We later played it at the home of the gathering that had been scheduled later.
The other 12 or 13 times, things went much better, but the work is always difficult and exacting, but unlike some contemporary music it is as fullfilling as a work of Tchaikovsky or Debussy, perhaps even more so.
The works beginning quietly almost whispering, and ends also very quietly, and while although for different reasons the opening the awakening of the nightingale, and the closing a long langorous violin solo ending on a pianissimo ultra high harmonic glorifying Jesus, there is always complete silence for several seconds and then the applause rises slowly and continues , almost as a part of the work.
Yes, it is a work of sublime beauty. I will always remember one comment from an audience member, now a celebrated theory teacher, who said, “this was a strangely earthbound performance” As the time went by I took the comment as one of the most severe I have ever received by anyone. Frankly I do not think it was meant as a criticism, however it was certainly considering the work.
Thanks again for your note. I hope this helps. It was a pleasure to write.
best regards,
sherman

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