Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps may be the most celebrated chamber work of the 20th century. Written when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Görlitz, and performed by the composer with three other POWs before a shivering audience of internees and guards in January of 1941, the Quatuor is not, as one might assume, primarily concerned with the Apocalypse. Rather, the “time” of the title is musical time: Messiaen was moving away from the metrical, more-or-less regular pulse that had characterized Western music for hundreds of years.
The piece has not hurt for good recorded performances. This late-1970s iteration, featuring Daniel Barenboim on piano and three less familiar players covering the string and clarinet parts, is idiomatic and technically unassailable. Other versions—TASHI’s is my favorite—are more dramatically vivid (more “ecstatic,” to use a term that appears in three of the work’s eight movement titles). Nonetheless, the long-limbed cello melody of the fifth movement is beautifully shaped and the sixth movement, entirely in unison, is a model of ensemble precision.
DG’s recording, and Speakers Corner’s vinyl reissue, are quite realistic, with each of the four instruments properly scaled and consistently localized in space. Loud piano detonations hold together well.