An excited crowd gathered late at the Crucible for a concert eagerly anticipated. The first night of Music in the Round's May Festival Love and War saw the ideal pairing of Messiaen's visionary wartime masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du temps with the virtuoso musicianship of four of the group's chamber players.
The playing of the quartet – pianist Tim Horton, cellist Gemma Rosefield, clarinettist Matthew Hunt and violinist Benjamin Nabarro – was wonderful throughout, meeting the demands of Messiaen's score with the necessary power and sensitivity whilst investing the slower and more angular passages with a lovely sense of line. Their interpretation of the Quatuor's opening movement, 'Liturgie de cristal', set the tone for the evening – charming, emanating warmth and wit.
The two slow movements for cello and violin solos were captured movingly by Rosefield and Nabarro respectively, their tempi – on the faster side – allowing the music to move whilst communicating an incredibly powerful sense of longing. Gemma Rosefield's concentrated tone in 'Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus' was particularly heartfelt and affecting, with razor-sharp intonation capturing perfectly the harmonic intensity of each note. Throughout these movements – and elsewhere – Horton acted as a sensitive accompanist, his right hand beautifully shaping the musical line.
The Quatuor contains the first use of named birdsong in Messiaen's music, often assigned to the clarinettist. In the first and third movements Matthew Hunt found the playful humour in the birdcalls whilst also bringing out the melancholy of Messiaen's long phrases. Throughout the work the rapport between the musicians was excellent, the ensemble in the tutti and unison passages near-perfect. Particularly beautiful was the blending between Nabarro and Rosefield in the quieter passages of the sixth movement, in which Messiaen's seven trumpets danced with perhaps more grace than fury.
Messiaen once commented on the experience of writing the Quatuor in a prison camp that 'in the midst of 30,000 prisoners, I was probably the only man who was not one'. Thus a deep humanity lies at the heart of the work – a sadness, but also a longing; even joy. It was these human elements that came over most strongly from this performance, perhaps to the detriment of the work's spiritual qualities, but certainly no less effective and moving for that. Bravo Music in the Round – a great start to an exciting festival.