It’s hard to believe that the Salt Bay Chamberfest just completed its 15th year at Round Top Farm (formerly Round Top Center for the Arts), except for the fact that it has matured and grown into one of Maine premiere musical events.

This is a tribute to the talent, devotion and perseverance of founder Wilhelmina Smith. (Now if she could only get pianist-composer Noel Lee to return)

Artistic maturity was evident at Friday night’s concert, which included two major 20th-century masterworks and a selection of sometimes biting cabaret song by Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill.

Schubert’s song, “Death and the Maiden,” included as part of the festival’s theme of “Spirituality in Music,” was by far the oldest composition on the program.

There was no attempt to cater to perceived notions of audience appeal in classical music, and this audience at least loved it, giving Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” a standing ovation.

If anything this summer season deserved long applause it was this performance. The first time I heard the “Quartet for the End of Time” it was considered a musical curiosity, having been written in a World War II prison camp for the only instruments available–clarinet, violin, cello (perhaps missing a string) and piano.

This astoundingly mystical work in eight movements has now been awarded its place in the canon, next to the late Beethoven quartets, and is beginning to be played the way it deserves, as it was on Friday by Timothy Fain, violin, Sophie Shao, cello, Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet and Pedja Muzijevic, piano.

The long solo passages were incredibly well performed, all of them giving the music space to breathe, while the clarinet accomplished feats that would once have seemed impossible, including imitations of birdsong, long crescendos and bass notes difficult on a saxophone.

The violin, however, had the final word, eventually soaring into the infinite.

Messaien is long gone, so one can say without fear of offending him that the quartet’s message of redemption, stemming from Roman Catholicism and the Book of Revelations, is equally applicable to any one of a number of spiritual traditions, including Sufi Islam.

George Crumb’s musical image of Hell, the string quartet “Black Angels” (1969), which began the program, was equally well performed and compelling in a totally different way, with electric insects straight out of a modern Breughel, echoes of St. Saens’ “Danse Macabre,” and an intensely sad Pavana Lachrymae in the “Absence” movement.

Crumb uses devices such as electronic amplification, bows on tam-tams, gongs, maracas, vibrating crystal glasses, and so on to create the appropriate surreal atmosphere. All of them work musically, as well as providing an element of surprise.

To take just one example, drumming with thimble-clad fingers on the strings evokes an image of a brook purling over a pebbly bed, perhaps washing away the sins of the black angels cast out of heaven.

The clever cabaret songs between the two main events were sung with just the right admixture of tenderness and cynicism by soprano Lucy Shelton, ending with a boisterous Calypso that few would believe came from the pen of Benjamin Britten.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]


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