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Back in mists of time

The story of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is one of the most compelling in 20th-century music, bolstered as it often was with some embroidery in the telling by the composer himself.

However, even the man who transcribed the music of the birds, made some of the most profound and devotional keyboard music, took the orchestral palette into a new age and created this extraordinary work with fellow inmates of a German prisoner of war camp, would probably not have foreseen tomorrows' performance of the piece in one of Scotland's more remote venues.

Music in Rannoch presents five concerts a year in the Old Church of Rannoch at Kinloch Rannoch, 20 miles west of Pitlochry on a road that runs out 15 miles on at Rannoch station. Guitarist Simon Thacker, a more portable performer, is November's attraction. This week, however, the members of the music club will welcome the Scottish Chamber Music Players with a performance of the quartet, marking the 20th anniversary of the composer's death in 1992.

The group is led by clarinettist Nicola Long, but the link between Rannoch and Messiaen is pianist Scott Mitchell.

Like music clubs and societies across Scotland, Music in Rannoch is run by unpaid enthusiasts, and some years ago chairman Neville Mangan wrote to Mitchell, who is senior staff accompanist and tutor of chamber musicians at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, looking for advice on young artists to book. Since then Mitchell has taken responsibility for one or two of the dates in Rannoch's season, arriving to play with professional colleagues or promising students.

"We usually promote duos and trios," says Mangan. "A flute and harp or violin and piano. We can't offer a big fee, and musicians usually choose their music to suit our audience."

The Messiaen Quartet is, then, something of a departure. "Messiaen is not everyone's cup of tea," concedes Mangan, but more positively he notes that performances of the seminal work are comparatively rare, so he has written to "neighbouring" clubs in Perth and Dundee suggesting they might like to make the journey to hear it.

In his own writings about the Quartet, New Yorker critic and author of The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross quotes research into the true story of the composition and first performance in Stalag VIIIA at Gorlitz on January 15, 1941 by clarinettist Rebecca Rischin.

Messiaen wrote the piece after being captured as a French soldier and its eight movements are the work of a devout man, telling the story of creation, singing sensuous praise to the Messiah, and familiar with John's vision in the Book of Revelation and the proclamation of the Angel of the Apocalypse that "There shall be time no longer".

The composer was, however, both a little economical with the truth about how original the whole suite was (he "re-purposed" some of the most affecting melodies from pre-war compositions for organ and ondes martenot – an early electronic instrument) and prone to exaggeration about its first performance, when the audience of guards and prisoners numbered hundreds rather than thousands and the instruments were far from as dilapidated as his tale of a three-string cello suggested.

In fact the story of the original musicians hardly requires embellishment. The original clarinettist, Henri Akoka, was forever trying to escape, and did so, in transit between camps three months later, leaping from a train, clarinet under his arm. The violinist became an actor in French New Wave cinema classics including Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad.

Nonetheless, Mitchell believes the small piano he will be playing at Rannoch is more true to the instrument that probably featured in the premiere than the concert grands on which The Quartet for the End of Time is now often played.

And he has a rather greater claim for the authenticity of his performance in the fact he was taught about the piece by the composer. When he was a student at the Royal Academy in London, he and his fellow students played their first Quartet in the presence of Messiaen as part of a festival of his work. The violinist in that group was Anthony Moffat, now leader of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera.

Following the performance, with the composer sitting in the front row, Messiaen talked to the players about the piece.

"He was very quietly spoken in French and not at all confident in English," remembers Mitchell. The common language of music meant the pianist learned some lessons he has not forgotten, however. One of the movements is famously marked "infinitely slow" and it and another have metronome markings that challenge every player. Messiaen indicated they were not to be obeyed slavishly, and were more of a goal for the players.

He also explained many of the work's chord clusters in terms of colours, describing sections as orange, green, yellow or blue. And, crucially, he also told the students he had enjoyed their performance.

Mitchell has only had one other opportunity to play the piece over the past 25 years, so tomorrow's recital with Long, violinist Ani Batikian and cellist Emily Walker is another important step on his own musical journey. It's a fair trek to get there though.

Scottish Chamber Music Players perform the Quartet for the End of Time at the Old Church of Rannoch tomorrow evening at 7.30pm. Tickets are £8 on the door, children free.

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