Music Reviews : Viklarbo Ensemble Plays Messiaen’s ‘Quartet’


Quite a few things clicked in Viklarbo Chamber Ensemble’s performance of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” Sunday afternoon.

Chief among them was the players with each other. In a piece that usually brings ad-hoc ensembles together, it proved a distinct advantage in this performance that Messiaen’s instrumentation is this group’s base unit.

But other elements added to the occasion too. The acoustic of St. Matthew’s Church in Pacific Palisades, lively and spacious, proved quite friendly to Messiaen’s crystallized harmonies and heaven-spanning melodies. The time of day (late afternoon) and Thomas Neenan’s preparatory remarks paid small dividends as well.


Which is to say that it was an arresting performance. Though far from a note-perfect reading, it proved a highly intelligent one in that the players--Maria Newman, violin; Sebastian Toettcher, cello; Jeff Elmassian, clarinet; Wendy Prober, piano--refused to overstate the music’s dramatic rhetoric.

Elmassian provided a rhythmically focused and keenly timed account of the clarinet solo movement. Toettcher and Prober offered a supple yet gripping reading of “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.” Newman and Toettcher sang quietly in the Vocalise.

Together they balanced each other comfortably, and made unified rhythmical inflections. Overall, they wisely allowed the music to make its own rapturous statements without needless additions of personal nuances and histrionics.

The concert, which opened the seventh season of the St. Matthew’s Music Guild, began with Newman’s own “The Selfish Giant” for violin and narrator (on Sunday, the narrators were Newman’s Viklarbo colleagues). Based upon an Oscar Wilde story of the same name, Newman’s piece unwinds with bits of narration followed by simple tone painting: Plaintive melody and harmonic tremolos serve to evoke a winter garden; double-stopped, downward sliding glissandos represent the wailing of an anguished boy. The musical evocations come after the fact, however--at times a static situation. But her music proves direct in impact, and engaging in its resourceful use of the violin.