A 20th-Century Masterpiece at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music

The Prometheus Trio is joined by clarinetist Benjamin Adler for a powerful reading of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”

It’s daunting enough to play one of the undisputed masterworks of 20th-century chamber music. But Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time ups the ante considerably. There’s the apocalyptic title, of course. And also its history: it was composed while Messiaen was interred in a World-War-II prisoner-of-war camp, and was first performed by his fellow inmates. Then, there are Messiaen’s descriptions of the piece’s eight movements, which reflect the composer’s deeply held Catholic beliefs: “The angel full of mighty returns, and in particular the rainbow that crowns him”; “A long phrase in the cello, inexorably slow, glorifies, with adoration and reverence the eternity of this mighty yet gentle word.” The musical stakes, you might say, are quite high.

Benjamin Adler.

At the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Monday night, the Prometheus Trio tackled this formidable piece with assurance and deep conviction. Along with clarinetist Benjamin Adler, the musicians brought a deep humanity to Messiaen’s challenging music.

It can be challenging for the listener, as well. But the composer’s distinctive musical vocabulary asserts itself at the beginning—and feeling yourself adapt to Messiaen’s style is part of the transformative experience of listening to the nearly hour-long quartet. In the first movement, the cellist Scott Tisdel and pianist Stephanie Jacob play a gentle and steady pulse of shifting harmonies, while Adler’s clarinet and Margot Schwartz’s violin spin wandering, bird-song-inspired filigrees. The second movement begins with a powerful, booming piano, but then settles in to a contemplative section in which a unison cello and violin play sinuous lines over a gently insistent march of piano chords. Other movements expand on these ideas, but the famous third movement, entitled “The Abyss of the Birds,” is distinct. A profoundly beautiful solo for the clarinet, the composer taxes the limits of the player’s breath control, demanding long, sustained tones that grow out of silence into an almost existential declaration: “I am here.”

The trio opened the program with Beethoven’s Trio in E-Flat Major, which by contrast seemed positively jaunty—not something you usually associate with that dour German master. The trio brought a lovely grace to the opening sostenuto theme, which continued through the main section, an elegant waltz. Things got considerably more playful after that. In the second movement, an elegant two-note motif (very Haydn-like) alternates with a meatier variation (the trio really dug in here), and the back-and-forth becomes pretty comical by the end of the movement. It ends with a spirited Allegro that had fingers flying until the rousing finish. The concert repeats Tuesday night.

Go See It: The Prometheus Trio (with guest Benjamin Adler) at The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (1684 N. Prospect Ave.) ;  7:30 pm, Tues., Dec. 5. 



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.