Alban's Blog

Messiaen in Lisbon, Birmginham and London – Debut in Poland

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 ( 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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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!


  • Robert

    Dear Alban,

    I heard the wonderful concert in the Wigmore Hall on 10th December (that day was Messiaen’s 100th birthday). I didn’t know either the Ravel or the Messiaen but came because I’d heard your magnificent Prokofiev Prom and thought anything from you was likely to be good. I wasn’t disappointed. The Messiaen, and the performance of it by you four, blew me away. I agree that no-one could hear it without thinking there’s something good and special in the world, in among all the horrors. Having head it live, I couldn’t imagine wanting to listen to a recording, but I’ll remember the occasion forever. That moment of silence at the end, after Viviane stopped playing, was extraordinary – I was hoping nobody would spoil it by coughing or clapping too soon – and they didn’t! Quite right not to play an encore, how could you possibly follow that? I wish more people could have heard it and feel embarrassed that the Wigmore Hall, although comfortably full, wasn’t completely packed. I got the feeling that you four must like and respect each other – and lucky you to do those journeys with Viviane!

    I’m a beginner at the cello and find watching great players helps – practising the folowing day I found something with my bowing had clicked and felt right – thanks for that. You don’t have to reply to any or all of this – but I’d love to know which cellists, past or present, you most admire. With your beautiful clarity, insights and violinistic technique you remind me more of Feuermann than anyone else I’ve heard live or recorded.

    Best wishes, Robert.

  • Alban

    Dear Robert,

    oh, I loved the silence after the end, what a great audience! And in a chambermusic concert one rarely plays encores, normally only after recitals or orchestra concerts, and you are right, after the Quatuor pour la fin du temps it would be rather inappropriate to play anything. We were very pleased with the good house – I prefer some empty seats over a crowd which sells out a hall because it loves going to events/stars; normally audiences like that don’t care as much about music as in our case.
    My favorite cellists? Well, thanks for your Feuermann comparison, whom I adore very much – if I had a tenth of him, I’d be really happy! Oh, there are many wonderful cellists, dead and alive, everybody has his strengths and weaknesses, obviously there is always a bigger quantity of good instrumentalists than musicians, but that has always been like that ๐Ÿ™‚ Names? Everybody ๐Ÿ™‚

  • David Nice

    I’m sure you know that Rostropovich had an extra long bow made especially for the big solo in the Quatuor (I was told this on Friday by a violinist from Les Talens Lyriques, who seemed to think he’d played in the premiere, but as I’d only just met her, and she seemed so nice, I didn’t want to correct her.)

    Steven’s Vingt Regards was another revelation to me; and I’m convinced, in both cases, that it would be very hard to hear these pieces done otherwise for quite a long time, but then my perspective is very different from yours.

    Does the filming mean there’ll be a telly recording, with visuals? That be the next best thing to a CD, though I must tell you that Mike Spring of Hyperion said something to the effect that maybe he should have tried to grab you for a recording of the Quatuor – if you are not too modest, you might try and press the case…

  • Thomas Walter

    An extra long bow? Funny imagination that a new bow was built only for one piece ๐Ÿ™‚


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