Messiaen Vingt Regards sur
Steven Osborne (piano) Wigmore Hall, 5 January 2000
Following his party pieces at the Wigmore Hall's first concert of the year, Steven Osborne returned for a sterner assignment, Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, two hours and ten minutes music played continuously without a pause! This was a marathon for pianist and listeners alike. It is a vast fresco of larger and smaller pieces, inspired by theological writers and visual representations, composed in Paris between March and September 1944, and premiered by Yvonne Loriod the following year. There is number symbolism, and several cyclic themes which help to give the vast work its unity. Many of Messiaen's musical techniques are developed in these pieces, notably superimposition of different modes and agrandissement asymétrique.
Steven Osborne demonstrated from the outset his remarkable control of pianissimo, with yet a quiet, full chordal sonority and steady pulse which exuded confidence and made it a pleasure to submit to the long first piece's expansiveness (extrêmement lent with triplet semiquavers one second each!). His virtuosity in the brilliant music was worn lightly and little strain was shown through to the triumphant end. A stupendous tour de force.
Rarely played in its entirety, the Vingt Regards hold a special place in my own affections since a period of some six months, many years ago, when I studied them at the piano daily, never aspiring to prescribed speeds in the harder pieces, yet discovering that they are pianistic in an unsuspected way, many of the most complex chords and patterns lying unexpectedly comfortably under the hands. There is a quite different listening experience to hearing music with which one has struggled personally, a reminder of Vaughan Williams's famous dictum that 'any music worth playing is worth playing badly', relating to his work with amateurs in Dorking, I think?
This was a memorable evening which helped to confirm Steven Osborne's stature as one of the most accomplished and versatile younger pianists now before the public. I would not recommend playing the Vingt Regards on CD at home straight through, however; the cycle suggests natural breaks after no. V, Par lui tout a été fait No. X, Regard de l'Esprit de joie and No. XV, Le baiser de l'Enfant-Jésus.
Peter Grahame Woolf
CD recommendations: There are many fine recordings of Vingt Regards. Yvonne Loriod can be heard on Erato 4509-91705-2 and 4509-96222-2 (3 CDs); Peter Hill studied it with Messiaen himself and takes 142' 19" on two CDs, Unicorn-Kanchana DKPCD9122/3. Joanna MacGregor on Collins Classics 70332 is highly rated. The account from Haakon Austbø on Naxos 8 550829/30 is also worth considering.
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