Composed and premiered in a concentration camp in the winter of 1941, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is one of the most terrifying and profound musical expressions of the Catholic faith to emerge out of the horrors of 20th-century warfare. And yet it also contains some of the most sensual music ever written. It is a rare group that can move between those extremes and master the score’s extreme virtuosity, but Ensemble Liaison passes with flying colours.
The trio plus Wilma Smith on violin are impressive individually, particularly clarinetist David Griffiths in his Herculean solo with its feats of breath control. But they play as one when it counts the most: the extended unison movement Dance de la Fureur, a fierce evocation of the seven trumpets of the apocalypse. This section is impressively faster than my go-to recording on DG with Daniel Barenboim, maintaining almost telepathic focus between the four players, but what they gain in speed they lose in gravitas.
Messiaen’s ethereal musical realm – beyond time as we know it – is not too daunting for these artists, who seem comfortable drawing out its rhythmic complexity and elasticity, playing with sinuous fluidity or taut precision as the moment demands.
The late-Romantic Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano by Zemlinsky makes an odd companion piece – despite its rich, almost symphonic lyrical pleasures it strikes me as a rather lightweight opener, even at 30 minutes long. Most recordings include another work by Messiaen for a different grouping of instruments, but the unity in this unique coupling lies in the quality of the beautifully blended performances. A welcome Australian addition to the End of Time catalogue.