The vast grandeur of the Albert Hall evaporated as all eyes and ears zoomed in on the four players – Matthew Barley, Martin Fröst, Thomas Larcher and Anthony Marwood – who were totally committed to Messiaens Quartet for the End of Time. The astounding facts about the origin of this piece are often cited, but with playing as gripping as this everything else is almost trivia.
As this was a late night Prom and this being 20th century repertoire there were no crisp-eaters or between-movement-clappers in sight. The audience was transfixed as the piano sounded as if it were actually breathing its magical opening chords in the first movement. The music drifted around the space as if it were disembodied and blindly searching, without the visceral bite you get in a smaller auditorium, but always retaining its dancing, hop-scotching rhythms.
The biggest hand goes to clarinettist Martin Fröst for his stunning performance. Listening to the movement for solo clarinet was like being dragged around a terrifying maze at an incredible speed, coming to a sudden halt and finding that youre not standing but floating. Only semi-poetic language like that will do for how he played, a completely thrilling, knife-edge affair.
There is less variety in the cello writing, so there wasnt comparable amazement in the following section, but still the atmosphere was tingling. Anthony Marwood had an ultra-romantic view of the violin part which he played with sheer gusto. A few portamento slurs here and a few extreme vibratos there were welcome details. Messiaen being played as if he were Schubert is a great, great sign.
Not every detail of the music was clear, impossible in this huge hall, but the communication was as direct and moving as it could have been.