Messiaen + Linda Smith

Linda Catlin Smith Among the Tarnished Stars (1998)     

Olivier Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps  (1941)      

Apartment House:  Anton Lukoszevieze (piano), Mira Benjamin (violin)

Heather Roche (clarinet) & Philip Thomas (piano)

another timbre, at143

‘Four members of Apartment House bring their cumulative insight and expertise as interpreters of experimental music to a performance that respects the intrinsic poise as well as the bold contrasts and occasional flamboyance of Messiaen’s score. By avoiding superfluous expressive artifice they allow this music to breathe. It takes on fresh life, and Smith’s Among The Tarnished Stars works beautifully as a prelude.’

Julian Cowley, The Wire

“And have you considered timbre,” interjected the senior scholar, aware of her advantage. The junior scholar, knowing his stake in the game but obviously flustered, floundered for a retort. “Well, I haven’t … I don’t see how I could … I mean it would …” “You haven’t? OK, you just go ahead and keep doing what everybody else does.” The conference room crackled with energy, as often happens in those moments of intergenerational confrontation, but she had made her point. There is a sense in which timbre has been the black sheep of analysis’ rapidly growing family, partly because we’re still attempting to codify a descriptive language for it. Scholarship at large has chosen to ignore it, but it is certainly among the most important elements of sound-art since 1900. I certainly do not mean to imply that earlier music lacked it, but its relevance has been explicit since Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Ives threw down timbral gauntlets around 1910. Justifying the name of the label housing it, this disc’s music and performers thrive on sound, its multivalent colors and their structural primacy, supported by a recording second to none.

There is no better ensemble to make the point than Apartmenthouse and no better composer to offer a worthy vehicle than Linda Catlin Smith, whose 1998 piece “Among the Tarnished Stars” provides the album’s point of entry. This reading is about six minutes slower than the only other I’ve heard, from the composer’s site, and while it is just like this ensemble to radicalize elements of tempo and dynamics, timbre is paramount. Every shade and color pianist Philip Thomas brings to bear on his opening ascending figures is captured with clarity and vivid contrast, enough so that Mira Benjamin’s violin, Anton Lukoszevieze’s cello and Heather Roche’s clarinet conjure shades of mellow Duke Ellington orchestrations upon entry. The nearly half-hour piece is about octave drone, disparate voicings, quasi-canon and dynamic contrast. Ensemble seems to grow and shrink while gestures emerge as, intriguingly, sheer beauty and sonic largess render actual group size irrelevant. String figures throb, swell and retreat, the tone world supported by seemingly infinite and ever-changing colors that slide in and out of focus with consummate grace.

The longer work on offer here provides some evidence, as several fantasy writers postulate, that the future can control the past, but Catlin Smith’s piece needs to be heard first for the desired effect. It’s an astonishing programming decision, and it’s invigorating to hear a piece of music rendered in a way that simultaneously defies and pays multivalent homage to history. To cite a lack of sentimentality in Ensemble Apartmenthouse’s reading of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time — I’ll be using English translations in this review — would be to belittle an accomplished and often maverick performance. The eight-movement suite, composed in 1941 and scored for identical forces to the Catlin Smith work, is likely Messiaen’s most recorded composition, and the competition is fierce. Apartmenthouse sidesteps such concerns. It may be easiest, when discussing an approach as radical as this one, to let a moment serve to illustrate the whole, such as the middle section of “Vocalise for the Angel who Announces the End of Time.” The most obvious departure concerns vibrato, which is almost entirely lacking, in this movement and throughout the disc. Its absence is most startling in “Vocalise”’s middle section, which, according to the composer’s program note, is meant to represent “the impalpable harmonies of Heaven.” Messiaen speculates on eternity’s sound quite often, creating gorgeously slow and often hushed ecstatically long lines of rapturous quasi-repetition.

Never have I heard any pair of string players execute the violin and cello parts as do Benjamin and Lukoszevieze. They achieve a unity of timbre and glissando that sometimes makes their combined instruments sound like Messiaen’s beloved ondes martenot, a keyboard-driven relation to the theramin, so that preechos of the angelic music scene in Messiaen’s St. Francis opera are unavoidable. It is almost as if “Tarnished Stars” informs the quartet in hindsight, so closely does it resemble that vision of eternity and all of the more reflective passages of the quartet, such as the similarly suspended middle section of “Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets.” Indeed, the entire movement, all octaves of varied intensity, takes on the calm of its middle section to startling effect. Thomas’ pianism exudes Debussey-like calm rather than the standard wrath, so different from every other conception I’ve experienced.

The sense of an intergenerational dialogue, on many levels, becomes more palpable with each hearing. Again, a moment speaks volumes as Roache’s take on the solo tour de force “Abyss of the Birds” reconjures the theramin, so rich in overtone but crystalline is the timbre of her opening tones; she places special emphasis on the first five notes, which Messiaenites will recognize as a motive so often used by the composer throughout his long career. The disc is a unity in diversity, a fact which would doubtless have pleased Messiaen no end, and this triumph of recording and performance should be heard by anyone with the slightest interest in the piece or in its musical implications.’

Marc Medwin, Dusted