MARLBORO, Vt. — Few pieces test an ensemble’s internal cohesion like Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Written in a German POW camp in the early 1940s, the piece reaches out of the historical catastrophe in which it was created, and opens a series of windows onto eternity. The music is ecstatic, strangely shaped, shot through with silence, and requires something akin to collective ESP to bring off convincingly.
On Saturday, the quartet was played in brilliant and gripping fashion by clarinetist Charles Neidich, violinist Itamar Zorman, cellist Lionel Cottet, and pianist Mitsuko Uchida, during the second weekend of concerts at Marlboro Music. Though they have no lengthy history of playing together and vary greatly in age and career status — Zorman and Cottet are in their 20s, while Neidich and Uchida are world-renowned instrumentalists; the latter is also Marlboro’s artistic director — they nevertheless achieved the requisite sense of unanimity. This is what Marlboro has been doing for 63 seasons — bringing together outstanding musicians, giving them all-but-unlimited rehearsal time, and setting them loose on a wide range of repertoire, only a few samples of which are heard at public concerts.
Like time itself, Messiaen’s quartet oscillates between stasis and frenzy. Some groups try to unlock its sense of timelessness by narrowing its extremes toward the middle. But Saturday’s performance showed that the piece succeeds only by embracing those extremes. Dynamic changes were vast, and the string players’ phrasing showed how much minute attention goes into making its melodies seem vast and oceanic. The care with which Uchida varied her touch so that each iteration of a repeated chord sounded different was staggering.
Most impressive, if one can single anyone out, was Neidich in his solo movement, “Abyss of the Birds.” Some phrases began imperceptibly and only gradually emerged from shadow into full presence. During long, loud notes he seemed to bend his pitch in a way Messiaen may not have intended, but which was spellbinding nonetheless. When a piquant bird call emerged at the end of one such moment, a wave of surprise rippled through the audience. This was the best performance I have heard of the quartet, and one of the very best things I’ve heard during two decades of Marlboro visits.
While the Messiaen was the standout, none of the weekend’s offerings fell below a very high level of preparation and execution. Saturday’s curtain raiser was Mozart’s final string quartet, K. 590, which boasted a delicate, ultra-refined string tone and a deeply poignant slow movement. It was a shock when the players cut loose and dug in more forcefully during the finale. Jay Campbell’s cello playing was a joy throughout.
Campbell returned, along with violinists Francisco Fullana and Joseph Lin and violist Pei-Ling Lin, for the centerpiece of Sunday’s concert, “Terra Memoria,” a 2006 string quartet by Kaija Saariaho, this year’s composer in residence. The piece is a melancholy exploration of the workings of memory, its imperceptible play between identity and change. The opening shimmers with languid melodies over pedal points; motifs recur, though a listener is left unsure how much they change in the process.
As the music gains momentum the sense of clear location is lost. Chords that begin consonantly grow into noise. When the pedal points reappear at the end, there is a sense of return, but now with a ghostly, ambiguous feel. The piece is not only compellingly built but sonically gorgeous. It was heartening to see a warm reception from the Marlboro audience, as well as a steady stream of well-wishers to the composer’s seat in the hall during intermission.
Sunday’s concert began with the Suite from Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” in an appealingly spiky performance. The playfully sinister tale centers in large part around a soldier’s violin, and Elizabeth Fayette’s incisive playing bristled with character. (Her partners were clarinetist Narek Arutyunian and pianist Bruno Canino.) Also on the program were Brahms’s Duets for two sopranos, Op. 61. They may seem like trifles relative to much else in the composer’s oeuvre, but the spacing of the voices and the variety in the piano writing show the hand of a master, lightly employed. The singers, Sarah Shafer and Mary-Jane Lee, blended perfectly; they were joined by Lydia Brown, Marlboro’s resident authority on vocal accompaniment.
Closing the weekend’s activity was Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat, Op. 70 No. 2. If not the cream of the composer’s chamber works, it is one of the most lyrical, with an easygoing breadth not often found in the composer’s middle-period works. Aside from a few balance problems early on, it was played with scrupulous care and great warmth by Fayette, pianist Adam Golka, and cellist Peter Stumpf.
Festival concerts continue through Aug. 17.David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes
@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.