Olivier Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) is one of the most introspective works existing for the chamber music medium, for both the composer himself and for the players. In a concert sponsored by Chamber Music Raleigh, musicians of the Charlotte Symphony came together to perform this intimate work in the SECU Auditorium at the NC Museum of Art. Quatour pour la fin du temps is well known for its unique instrumentation and powerful origin story (not to mention its musical gravitas); as he introduced the concert, clarinetist Samuel Sparrow spoke of the difficulty of finding a programmatic pairing with Messiaen’s work. As it turns out, Tierkreis by Karlheinz Stockhausen was a great companion. With its origins in the contemplative realm of astrology, each movement is inspired by a particular zodiac sign. It might seem odd to juxtapose this pagan tradition with Messiaen’s Catholic faith-based music, but both pieces involve a way to explain the unexplainable, whether considering life or the afterlife.

Sparrow was joined by violinist Oliver Kot, cellist Jeremy Lamb, and pianist Emily Jarrell Urbanek. All four currently perform with the Charlotte Symphony, but their experience and engagements spread widely across the United States. For this concert, the four musicians could also be credited as composers – Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, originally written as 12 melodies without accompaniment, can be adapted to any combination of instruments. Thus, the particular version heard on this program was unlike no other ever played before. The melodies themselves can be hard to pin down due to the modern and serialist nature of the music, but the texture that the four musicians created showcased their sensitivity well, both individually and in communication with the others.

Similar to the quartet’s interpretation of Tierkreis, each instrument in Messiaen’s work is treated as a highly individual entity. Birdsongs in the clarinet open the first movement and reappear charmingly throughout the eight movements, styled with precision by Sparrow, who proved particularly impressive in his extended solo movement, “Abyss of birds.” The two solo-like movements, cello in the fifth and violin in the eighth, were absolutely breathtaking. In the former, Lamb unfolded his continuous melodic line with heart-wrenching vibrato in the cello alongside Urbanek’s tonal, precisely weighted piano chords. Kot’s languid ascension (to heaven, one imagines) in the final movement was another pinnacle, marrying the genius of Messiaen’s writing with the technical and expressive skills of the four musicians. It’s hard to choose between those solo movements, though, and the striking unison phrases that occur in movements four and six (the latter is entirely in unison). The combination of the two strings, piano, and clarinet has such a unique timbre it can be difficult to find dynamic balance, but no one would have realized this watching these four! Quatour pour la fin du temps is really one of those pieces that cannot be entirely experienced through a recording. Thankfully, this visceral performance proved that entirely right.