The End of Time and the Search for Hope: Shostakovich and Messiaen, Southbank 10 May 2013

This was concert part of a weekend at the Southbank called the Art of Fear. Both pieces were written and premiered during World War 2, under different forms of oppression. Shostakovich was in Russia and aware of any infringement of producing unsuitable music for the regime. Messiaen had been captured by the German Army in 1940. He was moved to Stalag VIII-A near the Poland-German border and piece was first played before an audience inside the camp in 1941.
Shostakovich was thought to be the communist regime’s puppet composer, but more recently its thought he wrote to keep Stalin happy but used ciphers in music to display his contempt. The first movement starts with a serene cello, almost solo for much of the section. There was dissonance at times with the violin and piano contrasting the cello. It started quiet but built to a sound that felt child-like and stomping, it was only reading the programme notes later that I found that Shostakovich was mimicking a goose stepping march.
At times the piece has a dream like quality with an avant-garde improvisational feel. I can’t imagine it being a piece the soviet regime would have welcomed as appropriate for the worker’s revolution.
The Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time begins with an evocation of birdsong, each instrument playing a different tune or bird. A clarinet was added to complete the quartet. Quartet is a slight misnomer as there are long sections where only three or fewer instruments are playing. Each musician showed incredible skill during this piece. Long slow notes followed by flurries often accompanied by a piano setting a different pace to the lead instrument. The slow sections were almost bleak. Imagine being a prisoner of war hearing this. A clarinet or cello giving shape to powerlessness and any desperation you might feel. Each over long note extending the distance you feel from loved ones.
I kept waiting for the hope I’d heard and read about. Maybe it was there in the last violin section. As the last few notes of a beautifully complex piece played out to silence, maybe that was the new horizon.
It was a slow walk back over the bridge to the Embankment and my train. Maybe I just needed time to soak up the sounds and life of London.