When I look at all the works I have played so far for cello – be it solo, with piano or with orchestra – I might be tempted to state that the cello repertoire is not that small, but if I just have a tiny little look at the piano rep I must admit that we have nothing in comparison. This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, and while the pianists are in full combat-mode (2h15 minutes of “Vingt regards” for piano solo, or the 80 min Turangalila-Symphony, which is more or less a piano concerto, just to name a few) we cellists have practically nothing. Nothing? Well, there is the heavenly beautiful “Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps” for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, and since my friend and piano-partner Steven Osborne is one of the top Messiaen players (well, not only top for Messiaen) I am lucky enough to have been able to play this 50-min piece a couple of times this year, among others last week in Lisbon, Birminham and London’s Wigmore Hall.
This is one of the rare pieces of music which might be able to change you somewhere inside. If you don’t believe in God, you might do so after listening to this masterwork (or whatever you want to believe in spiritually) – why? Absolutely no idea – if I knew, I would try to write something like that. What separates the “Quatuor” from the rest of the chambermusic pieces is not only its length and its unusual combination of instruments, but also the fact that we have within these 8 movements different combinations of instruments (in only half of them all four instruments play together, then there is a solo clarinet movement, an interlude consisting of clarinet, violin and cello followed by the centerpiece, the slowest cello-piano piece ever written, and the work concludes with just violin and piano.
Messiaen demands for the “cello-movement” (“louange a l’eternite de jesus” – Eulogy to the eternity of Jesus) an eternally slow speed (sixteenth notes equal 44, and we have to hold half notes which last at least 11 sec, on one bow, with intensity and beauty – really difficult, I tell you!), and when a cellist once asked him if it had to be really 44, Messiaen said: “No, doesn’t have to be 44, could be rather slower!”. Whenever I have to perform this piece (yes, I have occasionally programmed it in the middle of a normal recital program – works nicely right after the Schnittke Sonata, without letting the audience applaude) I practise it with the metronom as slow as 39, because on stage one tends to have less bow…
Musicologist and journalist David Nice who took part in an interview before my Proms concert wrote in his blog about our concert in London’s Wigmore three days ago (www.davidnice.blogspot.com) being naturally enthusiast about the performance – no, not because we were so great, but because it was the first live-performance he attended, and as often the real great pieces work best if you listen to them in concert. We, that is Viviane Hagner (violin), Steven Osborne and Kari Kriikku, met as a group for the first time the day before our first concert in Lisbon on Dec 1. After 3 hours rehearsing it was clear that we didn’t need to worry at all about us playing together – we felt the piece very much the same way and we allowed ourselves the evening off to listen to Alfred Brendels rather beautiful Last Concert in Lisbon; what a great Schubert player!
We played in the same hall like Alfred, only difference was that his house was packed (1200 seats), and ours was less than half empty – what can one do, we ain’t Alfred Brendel, and Messiaen and Ravel ain’t Mozart, Haydn and Schubert 🙂 But we did well, it felt like a real good concert, and the best of all: we found this little inexpensive restaurant near the Gulbenkian foundation with the greatest fish dishes. Heaven!
After a week off I flew together with Viviane from Berlin to London, we rented a car, drove up to Birmingham, rehearsed 2 hours (together with excellent video artists Kathryn Hinde, who projected some beautiful pictures and films matching the Messiaen above our heads), slept a bit in the tiny dressing room of Town Hall (gorgeous hall, already Ravel and even Mendelssohn have performed there!), played the concert and then drove back afterwards to London where I stayed in the probably shitiest of all hotels near Wigmore Hall – mold in the bathroom, lousy breakfeast, but very quiet room. I had booked my hotel too late, exactly 24 hours before arriving there 🙂
And Wigmore Hall is always a treat to play in; the acoustics are magnificent, the audience very educated but still nice enough to be enthusiast (often that excludes each other, sophistication and enthusiasm, if you know what I mean) and we were all sad that it was already the last concert for the four of us. After a nice dinner to which all our managements had treated us, Viviane and me had to leave the city at 7 am in order to catch a flight at 9:10 am from Gatwick to Krakow, where we arrived 4 hours too late since at Gatwick they had simply “forgotten” to de-ice the runway and had to close the airport for a couple of hours. Nice! Anyway, I am happy to play my very first concert in Poland together with beautiful Viviane Hagner and the National Radio Orchestra of Poland in Katovice in about 3 hours . We will be conducted by 80 years old Jerzy Semkow, who has an amazing energy even though he is conducting with a heavy cold. He told us about his collaboration with Gregor Piatigorsky, his assistent position under his mentor Mrawinsky in Leningrad – great old man, and his Brahms is maybe a bit on the slow side but very, very beautiful! I’d better go practising in order to do him justice.
Just a little addition after the concert: My last Brahms Double for a while after quite many this year, and I must say, I don’t seem to get tired of that piece; today’s interpretation was quite different because of the rather different approach of conductor Jerzy Semkow, whose 4th Brahms after intermission was an absolute revelation, so much music, so much humanity – the orchestra played with heart, very beautiful, obviously they played their hearts outs for Maestro Semkow, quite touching to see that!