Vingt regards sur lEnfant Jésus
Steven Osborne (piano)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 3 December, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Perhaps ideally placed to herald the Advent season (although premièred on 25 March 1945 – closer to Easter), Steven Osborne’s Wigmore performance of Messiaen’s most famous solo piano work, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, drew a packed audience. With the new, more comfortable seats in their plush red velvet garb, there is a distinct warmth in the auditorium, especially with such an attentive audience, who nearly all took note of Osborne’s explanation at the start that, despite the programme’s direction, there would be a short break after the tenth ‘regard’ but that there should be no applause until the very end (some of the audience suffered from short-term memory loss).
Even from the back row, and with one of the permanently-on lights just behind me giving up the ghost, audibly gasping and with half-hearted flicker, this was an engrossing performance. Osborne is less overtly physical in style than Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who gave a memorable Vingt Regards during the BBC’s Messiaen festival a few years ago. Osborne keeps his back straight and rarely inflects his body with much movement, but that simply allows Messiaen’s unique pianistic homage to his God and Jesus to sound. Whether in the rapt simplicity of the most famous of the Vingt regards – No.15, ‘Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’ – or the powerful movements of thunderous fugues and frenetic figuration, such as Nos.6 (‘Par Lui toute a été fait’), 12 (‘La Parole toute-puissante’, which as Roger Nichols’s note suggested “out Bartóks Bartók”) and 18 (‘Regard de l’Onction terrible’), Osborne has all the technique and the coolness to carry this epic recital off.
At the end, I was amazed that it was 10.10 (I was convinced it was about 9.30). Time, then, had flown. Or, rather, Osborne’s performance inhabited a timeless world that surely Messiaen would have appreciated. While I find little in Messiaen’s religious beliefs to move me, and his bird-inspired creations have only a limited impact (Nos.9, ‘Regard des Hauteurs’ and 13 ‘Regard des Anges’, for example), there is no denying the contemplative power of Messiaen’s overall conception, whatever your personal beliefs.
Apart from slight hesitations in releasing the pedal at the end of movements, which sometimes created an unwanted buzzing instead of a clean break, Osborne offered peerless playing, whether in angular brittleness or the subtlest of chord changes in the most rapt moments. At the end, to cheering, he bowed to the reception with his russet shirt almost as pristine and uncrumpled as it had been at the start. One cool guy – and one supremely cool, and memorable, performance.