When music makes time stand still: the ACO takes on Messiaen

Two intimate chamber works make a seriously big impact.

Saleem Abboud Ashkar had a somewhat difficult musical upbringing in Nazareth. Amid a cacophony of Arab pop and muezzin prayers ringing from the mosques, this budding young pianist couldn’t shake his obsession with Schubert.

“There simply was no support in society for music like that. So it meant really crossing boundaries very early on and travelling a lot as a child, looking for places where I could study and the whole question of studying within an Israeli school. This offered a lot of resistance. But in the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 

Schubert won out, against the odds, and Abboud Ashkar’s journey to the performing at the Proms, with Zubin Mehta and with Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (“a life-changing experience”) can by traced back through London’s Royal Academy of Music and early lessons in Tel Aviv.

Now in his thirties and based in Berlin, he still has fond memories of the humble household instrument that set him on his path. “It was a rickety piano which was not even bought, it was exchanged,” he recalls. “My father swapped his old car for our first piano, this old thing bought from Russia.” 

I can’t help but think of another broken-down piano – the out-of-tune beast with the sticking keys on which Olivier Messiaen famously triumphed over adversity in the most harrowing conditions. On a bitterly cold winter night in 1941, in the dank barrack of the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, the French composer and three musician inmates made do with the only instruments at hand to give the first performance of his Quartet for the End of Time for their a crowd of rapt prisoners and the guards. 

The story of the work’s genesis is an extraordinary testament to the power of chamber music as a unifying force for performers and audiences alike. Certainly Abboud Ashkar, who calls the Quartet a “holy text” – will experience that strong connection when he plays the work with members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra: Helena Rathbone (violin), Timo-Veikko Valve (cello) and clarinettist Paul Dean. 

“Simply this act of making music together, it's so intimate and there is certain bonding,” the pianist insists. “During this hour, hour-and-half, it can be the strangest people that you've just met two days before for rehearsal, but there's this amazing bond between the persons as well. That's a beautiful experience.” 

Paul Dean adds that there is give and take: “Playing with great musicians like members of the ACO is always such an incredibly soul-enriching experience. But it’s also really challenging and the sort of thing a musician needs to do to ensure their longevity.” 

As far as bonding experiences go, what piece could be more intense and spiritual than Quartet for the End of Time? In one movement, the four players race through a tour-de-force apocalyptic “Dance of Fury”, belting out complex rhythms and angular motifs in perfect unison with one another – no man (or woman) left behind. Elsewhere, pianist will underscore cellist in an impossibly slow, ethereal melody that heaves with languid rapture. 

But the pièce de résistance is in fact, a solo movement: Abyss of the Birds, one of the most demanding moments in the clarinet repertoire in which time indeed seems to stand still. Dean has to steal himself. “I find it such an incredible challenge both technically and instrumentally, but also emotionally,” he says. 

“The challenge of this particular tour with the ACO, for the four of us, is the number of times we have to play it in such a short period of time, night after night, 12 concerts in 13 days. I always find it really hard to come down after a performance of Messiaen. So, I think it will be two weeks of sleep deprivation, really.”

No question, though, that the payoff is spectacular. Dean recalls playing the work at the Australian Youth Orchestra’s national music camp in 2009, when he was director of the program. “I set it up with a long speech about taking risks – I want young musicians to take risks – then I sort of put myself on the line and decided we were going to do Quartet for the End of Time

“In between the movements there was total silence. I can’t remember there being a single noise throughout the entire performance, until the very end, when we could actually hear sobbing. It still freaks me out, that performance. It’s the sort of piece that can really get an audience spellbound.” 

It’s a far cry from Schubert’s limpid, sun-dappled Trout Quintet – Abboud Ashkar explains the reasoning behind what might seem like a two-faced program. “The Trout is such a monumental work and you cannot just put it with a small piece by Mozart or a small piece by Schubert. It has to be something of similar weight, but from a completely different world. 

“In that sense, the Messiaen is right because it is also a piece of enormous importance and enormous weight – spiritual weight. It doesn't complete with the Trout. It doesn't live in the same neighbourhood.” 

The mood, of course, is entirely different. “If you want me to say a cliché for somebody from where I come from, it's like being on a flying carpet,” the pianist says giddily. “Once the variations come, it takes off and you're in another realm. It's just so much fun!”

The ACO presents Quartet for the End of Time and the Trout Quintet in national tour until July 24. View event details here.

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When music makes time stand still: the ACO takes on Messiaen
Pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar
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