From the Canyons to the Stars: The Music of Olivier Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus

Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Philip O’Meara

Reviewed: 13 February, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Guy VivienPierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance of Messiaen’s colossal Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus provided the Southbank Centre with a neat intersection of the International Piano Series and the Messiaen festival: a sell-out audience.

After the announcement that someone in admin had put the interval in the wrong place in the programme, Aimard appeared looking unmistakably (and unusually) tentative. He sat at the piano for some time – waiting for the audience to become cured of the consumption that infects concert-goers and also to collect himself.

Eventually, he opened with those unforgettable chords – the theme of ‘The Father’. Aimard’s tentativeness came through in his playing – a slight awkwardness – but this hesitation gradually faded and by the third or fourth piece Aimard was fully into Messiaen’s wonderful but disturbing world.

Vingt regards (1944) is in twenty sections. Four themes (in both senses of the word) repeatedly appear – ‘Theme of God’, ‘Theme of Mystical Love’, ‘Theme of the Star and Cross’ and ‘Theme of Chords’. It is a truly astounding work. Messiaen’s manipulation of musical themes creates a work of structure and symmetry, yet (like the skills of Aimard) sheer mystery and wonder.

The themes are used explicitly, in counterpoint, in contrast and complement and therefore the work has a very traditional quality to it – thematic and heavily endowed with orientalism and – naturally – a flock of assorted singing birds. Messiaen was fixated by birdsong; his notation of it here is incredibly astute, the closest sound to the song of angels – spontaneous and unaffected by human consciousness. Indeed, his use of birdsong in the movements to do with angels, God and the Son demonstrate what he must have thought about the enigma of the dawn chorus.

The work takes us through a spiritual journey from the stars, to Christmas, to shepherds and Magi, to the heights of infinity and the wonder of the mystical love of God. Such is the fabric of the work that in the concluding (and longest) movement ‘Contemplation of the Church of Love’, all is fulfilled – the confusion, the complication and wonder of the work suddenly makes perfect sense.

Aimard is synonymous with Messiaen’s music. He was spellbinding, giving a passionate, electrifying and beautiful performance. Close your eyes, and it is hard to believe there is only one pianist – some passages contain phrases occurring simultaneously, each of which demand a contrasting playing style. It is a hugely demanding work, which Aimard executed with precision and sensitivity: remarkable and astonishing.

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