Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus
Reinis Zariņš (piano)
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 23 February, 2022
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
At this point in the calendar, a little over halfway between Christmas and where Easter falls this year, it was apt to be reminded in Messiaen’s substantial cycle on the infant Jesus, that the appearance of God on earth wasn’t ‘just for Christmas’ as it were, but in the Christian story served the much more serious purpose of living among, suffering for, and ultimately redeeming mankind. The twenty Regards (or gazes or reflections) on the Christ child is no more really a work for Christmas than is Handel’s Lenten oratorio Messiah, as it meditates upon the redemptive significance of the Incarnation rather than merely narrates the historical events of the Nativity (a number of the Biblical quotations Messiaen used at the head of each movement happened to be set by Handel in his work).
The Wigmore Hall (sadly little more than half full) was atmospherically plunged into near-darkness for this interpretation by Reinis Zariņš, leaving the glow of only a few lamps, presumably to symbolise the void into which the incarnate light came. Given the hall’s vaulted nave-like auditorium, and apse behind the stage, the performance might almost have been an extended meditation in a neo-Romanesque chapel, especially as the Biblical extract for each Regard was beamed onto the wall behind Zariņš. However, his steady, assured execution of the opening Theme of God’s chords heralded a somewhat architectural edifice, rather than a prolonged musical prayer, in which the music seemed more to be carefully sculpted, than coloured or perfumed. For example, the solemn penultimate Regard was ethereal and hushed, rather than intensely spiritual or fervent.
That is not to imply that this was in any way a static or lifeless account. On the contrary, although Zariņš never rushed (his performance, played from memory, came in at just under two-and-a-quarter hours, though it seemed scarcely half that length) he imbued the music with a more internalised dynamism, manifested in his tellingly calm engagement with it throughout. That reserved tension issued, on the one hand, from his lyrically insistent playing of the Theme of God in its differing guises, and of the connected motifs which occur in various places that often play around repetitively with just a handful of notes within a small intervallic compass. On the other hand was the frequently warm, resonant timbre he coaxed from the piano, somewhat like the style of Claudio Arrau. Furthermore he left very little pause between one movement and the next, except after the large climaxes of Regards VI and X, thereby drawing the whole sequence together into a more seamless thread.
Rather than trying to imitate the myriad colours of the orchestra – at which Messiaen’s piano music often seems to aim – Zariņš’s performance remained essentially pianistic, and even without particularly exploiting its percussive qualities. The filigree elegance of some of the more elaborate passagework (as in Regard XV) or the rapt stillness of Regard XVII’s evocation of silence recalled Chopin, whilst the crystalline glinting of the sequences in the instrument’s upper register was sustained with an impressive suppleness reminiscent of Ravel’s pianism. Rumbles lower down in the keyboard did perhaps look ahead to the darker, stringless sonorities of Messiaen’s more brass-inspired orchestral works such as Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Couleurs de la Cité Céleste, but they still fitted within the gently determined logic of this interpretation overall.
In sum, the effect of the whole was more like a cerebral, theological rumination upon the import of the Incarnation, rather than an incense-infused, mystical high, but it evinced a distinctly considered emotional world of its own – different from, but as equally compelling as, the performance by Steven Osborne in November 2019 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.