Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus Review

Released 2002.  

BBC Review

Even with music as finely detailed as Messiaen's, there is still room for individual...

Andrew McGregor 2002

Messiaen's widow, Yvonne Loriod, was so impressed with Steven Osborne's 1999 performance of Trois Petites Liturgies that she invited him to Paris to study the larger piano works. Since then Osborne has performed Messiaen's epic piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus a number of times in public, a work which draws enormously on reserves of stamina, strength and dexterity.

The work was written during the German occupation of France, where basic services such as electricity were becoming so scarce that even the Paris Opéra closed for a time. Messiaen's home was in the north-east of the city, surrounded by constant outbreaks of fighting. With De Gaulle's historic shouts of 'Paris humiliated! Paris broken! Paris martyrised! But Paris liberated!' (words which later Messiaen openly supported) it is astonishing that he managed to finish the Vingt Regards at all in this time, with its symbolic themes of all-embracing love, the Virgin, the Cross and God.

Even with music as finely detailed as Messiaen's in its markings of tempo and articulation, there is still a lot of room for individual interpretation and variation. In this recording of Vingt Regards Osborne often produces glittering pianistic effects or brings out rarely-heard musical lines, although sometimes he sticks perhaps a little too rigidly to the composer's precise notation.

With 'music of the spirit' like this, it is difficult to tread the fine line between total adherence to the printed music and a performance which, although accurate, can 'give' at the edges and produce a perhaps more fulfilling, dare I say impressionist, colourful whole. Osborne possesses these 'giving' qualities, but more than a few times I wished he had taken just a little more time over some of the hurrying groups of demisemiquavers.

He certainly has the pianistic and musical capabilities to carry it off, this recording being one of the most virtuosic I have heard. But for me this performance did feel rather '4-square' - although technically very exact, with great sweeping ranges of timbre and dynamics, it was in places too exact, perhaps not luxuriating or giving as much time to the all-important Messiaen sound-world as I would have liked.

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