Olivier Messiaen’s monumental work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus) surely ranks amongst the “greats” of the piano repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale, variety and pianistic challenges. It is a ground-breaking work which combines richly-hued romanticism and the spare modernism that influenced Messiaen’s pupil, Pierre Boulez, and it reveals many of Messiaen’s preoccupations and interests – birdsong, eastern rhythms and instruments, cosmology, religious iconography and his own deeply-held Catholic faith.
That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not need to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work.
Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music through the use of recurring motifs, themes and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements provide musical “signposts” for the listener and also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards its ecstatic finale. The individual movements, with their special titles and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the story of Christ’s birth, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.
Silence also plays a significant part in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement (“Je dors, mais mon cœur veille”) where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements and it is used melodically rather than for pure effect (in this performance the French pianist Pierre-Laurence Aimard found musical sense, rather than mere decoration, in the birdsong figurations). There are even references to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (“Regard de l’Esprit de joie”/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy).
At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake its immense technical and musical demands. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of “Regard de la Vierge” to primal brutality of “Par Lui tout a été fait” and the concentrated stillness of “Je dors, mais mon cœur veille”.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard enjoys the special distinction of having known Messiaen personally, and he studied with Yvonne Loriod (who premiered the work in March 1945 and who became the composer’s second wife in 1961). Aimard has a long-standing and highly-respected relationship with Messiaen’s piano music and it remains a core part of his repertoire. He is also a champion of modern and contemporary piano repertoire, and as a result he brings to this music a special understanding of Messiaen’s unique approach to pitch, rhythm, sonority and attack.
His performance at Milton Court, London’s newest small concert venue, was revelatory and engrossing, not just in his ability to physically hold all the elements of the work together for two hours, displaying bravura technical and pianistic command and physical stamina, but also in his articulate and insightful approach to the music. His treatment of Messiaen’s distinctive timbres and colourful harmonies brought the music to life in vivid layers. The hushed chords and repeated right-hand octaves of the first Regard were almost whispered, before a clear bell sounded across the hall. Throughout the performance, veiled pianissimos contrasted with glittering effects high in the upper registers, voluptuous harmonies, deep bass rumblings and sparkling fiorituras redolent of Liszt at his most extrovert. Silences became moments of intense contemplation, the sound decay of the piano (a Yamaha rather than a Steinway with a sonorous, chocolatey bass) left soundwaves penetrating the void, offering further pauses for reflection, while repeated motifs and passages were nuanced so that repetitions never sounded automatic or contrived. Aimard is strong and he imbues the music with a muscularity and athletic grace which preserves it from false sentiment or the stuff of chocolate-box Christmas images of the infant Jesus.
It was a performance of great virtuosity, yet never at the expense of the music, the fundamental vision of the work made clear. The entire performance was perfectly paced, Aimard’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. An exhilarating performance was met with a wholly deserved standing ovation from an audience who really cared about and appreciated this extraordinary music.
This review was first published on Bachtrack.com