Messiaen magic meets an ode to misery at Townsville’s annual classical extravaganza.

Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time
Beethoven arr Liszt Symphony No 9 in D minor (Finale)
Strauss arr Ledger Four Last Songs
Townsville Civic Theatre, July 29 

It is a progressive festival that kicks off with a work as spiritually and musically complex as Quartet for the End of Time. But the message and intent of such an opening statement is clear: Messiaen’s masterpiece serves as an emblem for the triumph of chamber music. He composed and premiered it in 1941 as a prisoner of war in a German camp – where it must have felt as though time had stopped – and played the piano part on a rickety instrument with missing keys while internees and their captors huddled together, transfixed. It is arguably the most profound and arresting meditation in music on God and the apocalypse. 

For its opening act, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music drew together four musicians of astonishing virtuosity and discipline. Michael Collins’ extended clarinet solo, the Abyss movement, demonstrated his edge-of-your-seat dynamic and breath control: long-held crescendos swelling from nothingness into full strength. The clarinetist, who has previously worked with Messiaen on the piece, equally excelled in bringing out the lively character of rapid birdsong motifs. Violinist Philippe Graffin, cellist Louise Hopkins and Piers Lane on piano played with searing intensity in the other movements. The foursome’s Dance of Fury – a unison tour de force of frenzied rhythms and melodic precision – was faster, more passionate and more fluid than on any recording of the Quartet I’ve heard on disc. 

Underscored by a gentle wash of piano chords, the haunting languour of two slow movements (one for violin and one for cello) proved difficult to sustain through those seemingly endless bow phrases. Far more distracting than the occasional disjointedness were Damien Beaumont’s onstage, spoken explanations of each section, based on the composer’s own writings and not part of a standard performance. Though his contributions were beautifully and sensitively delivered, Beaumont became an interloper breaking the spell between movements. In any case, these analytical deconstructions of the music’s religious imagery are quite unnecessary: Quartet for the End of Time is imbued with such power that it speaks for itself: we need only follow the wisdom of Messiaen’s mantra and “écoutez les oiseaux” (listen to the birds).

The concert’s second half began with another work expressing awe at the magnitude of creation, by contrast in a jubilant mood: the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth in a two-piano transcription by Liszt. When identical twins John and Richard Contiguglia took the stage, they could have been mistaken for a comic duo act – one of the brothers spent several minutes adjusting the height of his seat with Chaplin-esque gestures, eliciting chuckles from the audience. Although they had a clear synergy and played admirably from memory, there was no joy to this ode. The pair bashed and fumbled their way through variation after variation with few moments of clarity. It isn’t surprising that the two septuagenarians, although supremely gifted, lacked the stamina to get through this challenging work gracefully.

The evening was back on form with a sublime Four Last Songs in James Ledger’s chamber orchestra arrangement. Australian soprano Louise Page had dramatic poise in her burnished highs, though in her lower range, in the Civic Theatre acoustic, she was overwhelmed even by 13 musicians from the QSO (conducted by Johannes Fritzsch). A radiant end to the triumphant opening night of the 21st Australian Festival of Chamber Music.