Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus
Steven Osborne (piano)
Steven Osborne seemed destined to battle the odds with his performance of Vingt Regards this evening. The steely, clear tones of a Steinway D, in the deadening acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is hardly the ideal setting for Messiaen’s perfumed devotions. As it turned out, this bright and focussed piano sound proved ideal for Osborne’s reading. Details of texture and harmony are at the heart of his interpretation, and by giving clarity to every chord and every phrase, he was able to demonstrate that there is far more to this music than Catholic mysticism, and that its emotional impact is as much a result of the innovative and finely-wrought piano textures as it is of the theological ideas that inspired it.
In the absence of a resonant acoustic, silences became all the more intense. Audience expectation ran high (no doubt because Osborne’s recording of this work is considered among the finest available) and when he came onto the stage and sat at the keyboard, it seemed that nobody breathed until he played his first chord. And the opening passages set the tone for the performance ahead: quiet and precisely voiced, crystalline and inscrutable. Under other hands, this opening movement can tend towards Impressionism, but Osborne stands further back from the emotion within the music. He lets the varied tone colours shape the phrases, and adds no more rubato than the score demands. This has the paradoxical effect of making the music sound all the more intimate and immediate: Osborne takes himself out of the equation, letting the audience commune directly with the composer. Messiaen himself poses question after question, with his irregular rhythms and unresolving harmonies, and rather than offering his own answers, Osborne leaves the music open for his listeners to decide for themselves. And when major chords and simple cadences appear from within the otherwise complex limited-transposition harmonies, Osborne never dwells on them, suggesting that any resolution they offer is only transient, and that the big questions still remain.
The louder music makes exceptional demands on the performer’s virtuosity. Osborne has the technical facility to deal with everything the Messiaen throws at him. The long crescendos are finely graded, and the climaxes have a volcanic intensity. Sudden dynamic changes are expertly timed to give each new idea a sense of inevitability: there was never any feeling here that either Messiaen or Osborne was simply out to shock.
Osborne’s unromantic reading is fully validated by the quiet movements. The composer’s message is conveyed here through the continual repetition of the elegant ideas, rather than through that elegance itself. These passages are presented with clarity of texture, and with the repetitions suggesting gentle insistence rather than pedantry. The approach works because Osborne also has a mastery of the music’s form and progression, which given the sheer scale of this work is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his reading. Messiaen often writes long, long crescendos and diminuendos over angular repeating figures. Osborne makes the dynamic changes, but also keeps the colour and character of the music constant throughout. And then when it returns, many movements later, it is exactly the same as we last heard it.
The heart of the performance was the penultimate movement, “I sleep but my heart keeps watch”. We hear a short chordal motif, repeated incessantly and interpolated by short scurrying figures at the top of the keyboard, and a tolling bass note at the bottom. An absolute silence separates each of these elements, not as a rhetorical gesture of phrasing, more as an ontological chasm between the unrelated sonic worlds. And the audience maintained that silence too, still held in rapt attention after around two hours of continuous listening. The last movement, “Gaze of the Church of Love”, is similarly diffuse, but much more intense. Here the main middle register idea is an obsessively repeating chord, while the contrasting idea in the upper register has now become bells. Osborne again maintained the high level of concentration, making each chord and chime a significant and poignant event. After the final flourish, a brief downward dive towards an earthy, deadened bass note, Osborne stood to receive the applause. He seemed shattered, hardly able to stand from the emotional exhaustion of the previous two and a quarter hours. Everybody in the audience knew exactly how he felt.