In some ways it was almost like a replay of my last visit. Which is to say that, after an inauspicious start, Thursday's Deer Valley Chamber Music Festival concert wound up with an offering that in and of itself justified the entire undertaking.
Last time it was the Arensky Quartet in A minor for Violin, Viola and Two Cellos, the source of his famous Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky. This time it was Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," a visionary work if there ever was one, here served up as sort of a pre-birthday tribute to the composer (he will be 80 in December).Written and first performed in a German prison camp, the work clearly represented an artistic escape for Messiaen. (Even he acknowledges the effect hunger may have had on its more mystical aspects, including what he describes as its "sound-colors.") Yet time and repetition have not dimmed its transcendency, and on this exposure one was again struck by how much beauty the composer was able to find amid extreme privation.
Admittedly it is very much a 20th-century beauty, its inward contemplations bracketing an "Intermede" of almost Bartokian angularity. Yet from the slightly skitterish birdsongs that open the work (here played in somewhat restrained fashion) these players made the ascent, to a concluding "Homage to the Immortality of Jesus" whose controlled intensity spoke to the heart.
Russell Harlow did the honors in the concentrated clarinet solo that makes up the third movement ("Abyss of the Birds"), with cellist Jeffrey Solow and pianist Frank Weinstock capturing the arching lyricism of the fifth. Leaving violinist Sergiu Schwartz to reap the lion's share of the rewards in the finale. But in fact everyone distinguished himself, whether in the semi-icy visions of the Angel of the Apocalypse or the demanding unison playing of the "Dance of Fury," here laid into with broad strokes and impressive sonority.
Earlier Weinstock and Solow made an assertive case for Beethoven's Sonata in D major for Piano and Cello, Op. 102, the last of five for that combination. Occasionally that virility was achieved at the cost of refinement, but the slow movement, in which the cello is dominant, had the proper gravity and dynamic control. And by the finale Weinstock proved himself capable of the kind of coloristic range demanded by the Messiaen.
Would that things had improved that steadily in the curtain-raiser, Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K. 421 - the second of the "Haydn" Quartets. From the first, however, this was compromised by variable intonation and ensemble, and if anything the playing grew more labored as the performance progressed.
Only the Minuet, here a bit wiry, breathed much life. But in the Trio, as elsewhere, it was impossible to ignore the first violinist (Sheldon Rosen), whose solos were seldom on the string, or the pitch. And by the time a tempo was settled on for the concluding variations, what followed seemed interminable - i.e. one found oneself longing for the "end of time" in more ways than one.
The series concludes Sunday with a 3 p.m. performance at the Snow Park Lodge of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with Weinstock and flutist Erich Graf, along with more Mozart and Arensky - the D minor Piano Trio.
It should be worth a listen.