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Music Review

Chamber Society offers radiant French fare

October 31, 2009|Rick Schultz

One of the more uplifting stories of 20th century musical composition concerns the genesis of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." He composed it while interned in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, and the work premiered there in 1941 with Messiaen himself on a battered piano accompanying fellow prisoners.

It was hard not to think of the quartet's origins while listening to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's radiant account of the piece Thursday in the second half of a program called "French Focus" at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

The hall, though not especially warm acoustically, was intimate enough to bring close the Chamber Music Society performers: Nicolas Altstaedt, cello; Ani Kavafian, violin; Anne-Marie McDermott, piano; and David Shifrin, clarinet. The ethereal mood set by the group resulted in an absorbing collaboration among the performers and a rapt audience. Messiaen called the eight-movement work -- inspired by apocalyptic imagery in the Revelation of St. John -- "stained-glass-window music." He wanted to create a sonic "theological rainbow," and that's what Kavafian and company conveyed, with a performance of stirring rhythmic and expressive power. They could be intimate and philosophical while also digging into the score's showier sections.

Tight ensemble playing made for a gripping account of the metrically intricate "Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets." And Shifrin's lovely solo in "Abyss of the Birds" became alternately sad and jubilant.

The concert began with another wartime score, this time from World War I, Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano. McDermott kept the piano lid up, occasionally threatening to overwhelm Kavafian, but the more vehement passages came off well.

Next, Shifrin and the resourceful McDermott returned with a Debussy rarity: the First Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano. At times, the clarinetist's sound pierced rather than shimmered, but this was a technically solid and expressive account.

Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello, which closed the concert's first half, received a dazzling performance. Kavafian's and Altstaedt's playing in the exciting Hungarian-style finale sustained the music's tension while never losing the harmonic individuality of their respective instruments.

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