Messiaen’s Visionary Piano Cycle is an Awe-Inspiring Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Messiaen: Steven Osborne (piano), St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 11.5.2013 (JQ)

Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944)

Steven Osborne Photo Credit Ben Ealovega
Steven Osborne Photo Credit Ben Ealovega

Messiaen’s huge cycle of twenty piano pieces is, in my view, a landmark work in twentieth-century music. To a pianist it poses a huge challenge – technical, emotional and intellectual – and opportunities to experience it live are pretty rare. Indeed, though I’ve heard the cycle many times on radio and disc over the years I’ve never had the chance to hear it complete in concert.

If the challenges to the performer are manifold so are they for the listener and for this performance as part of the Chipping Campden Festival Steven Osborne set us an even greater challenge by opting to play the cycle without any intermission. His performance occupied two hours and six minutes and that’s a long time for an audience, especially when those of us who were insufficiently wise not to have brought a cushion had to sit on hard wooden pews. However, something quite remarkable happened during this performance. It has become distressingly commonplace for concert audiences to fidget and, above all, to cough without restraint during performances: not for nothing has my colleague, Mark Berry, made reference to ‘bronchial terrorists’. During the first few movements tonight there were a few jarring coughs and I feared the worst. Remarkably, however, as the church became darker and as the magnetism of Messiaen’s music and Osborne’s playing drew us in, the audience became ever more still until we reached the penultimate movement, Je dors, mais mon coeur veille. Osborne’s playing here had transcendent luminosity and as he led us through this very beautiful, mystical music, playing with utmost sensitivity, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. I can’t readily recall being part of such an attentive, silent audience. It was a very special experience and testimony to the music and musicianship we had been experiencing.

Thus, Steven Osborne’s decision to play the whole cycle without a break was triumphantly vindicated. I had been expecting this for he referred to this intention in his recent interview for Seen and Heard with Robert Beattie when he had this to say about Vingt regards: “There is nothing quite like it.  It stands like a Bach passion in the piano literature and introduces the audience to an overwhelming world of expression.  I want to play the set without a break to ensure the audience are completely immersed in Messiaen’s emotional and mystical world.” His performance most certainly immersed us all in Messiaen’s great vision.

I hardly know where to start in appraising this performance for, in truth, it was one of the most enthralling musical experiences that I’ve had for a very long time. One impression with which I came away – an impression which is not quite so strong when listening on disc, I think, because one misses the physical aspect of being present at the performance – is the tremendous degree of contrast within this cycle. Not only is there an abundance of contrast within many of the movements but also – and this was especially evident here – on many occasions a movement will stand in the starkest of contrasts to its predecessor.  So, for example, we had the experience of the fifth movement, Regard du Fils sur le Fils, in which Messiaen’s beloved birdsongs are heard carolling around one of his leitmotifs, the Theme of God: sometimes this caroling is gentle, at other times it’s ecstatic. After that, however, Osborne plunged us headlong and with virtually no pause into the ferocious music of Par lui tout a été fait. This was one of several instances where Osborne displayed virtuosity that was simply jaw-dropping. This driving, propulsive music was dispatched at a tremendous speed with phenomenal virtuosity and ferocious power. Here one had a tangible sense of the power of Creation and when the music finally reached a revelation of the Theme of God Osborne’s performance had been so tumultuous that this moment of arrival was truly thrilling.

Equally thrilling was Regard de l’Esprit de joie, a frenetic, wild percussive dance. Osborne’s delivery of this astonishing, teeming movement was viscerally exciting, offering many pre-echoes of the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-1948) – in a superb recording of which he has recently taken part (review). Yet even here, amid all the tumult, Osborne produced a wonderful range of pianistic colours to complement his tremendous rhythmic drive.

However, whilst it’s true that Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus contains many spectacular, thrilling moments there is also an abundance of subtle and gentle devotional music and Steven Osborne was just as successful in these passages. I’ve mentioned already his wonderful rendition of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille. Equally beguiling was his way with the rapt, pure music at the start and conclusion of Première communion de la Vierge. The fifteenth movement, Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus, in which the Theme of God is treated as a berceuse, was full of tranquillity and beneficence. Most of this movement is an oasis of musical peace and Osborne brought out the profound simplicity – and humility – of Messiaen’s concept; in so doing he had the rapt attention of his audience.

We had the spectacle of Heaven’s fiery armies lighting up the sky in Regard des Anges. There was a vision of frightening power in Regard de l‘Onction terrible while in Noël we experienced wonderful contrasts between exultant carillons and moments of contemplation. Finally, after nearly two hours, we arrived at Regard de l’Église d’amour and there was a palpable sense of the end of a journey – even of a pilgrimage concluding. This movement is a summation of all that has gone before with two of Messiaen’s leitmotif themes – the Theme of Love and, above all, the Theme of God – reaching their apotheosis. With the benefit of his uninterrupted presentation of this cycle, Osborne really could present this movement as a musical, philosophical and, yes, theological culmination. His playing of this majestic and eventually ecstatic music was as impressive as anything that had gone before it. At the end he managed to hold the moment so that there was a decent pause before the audience awarded him a richly deserved standing ovation.

I had expected a fine performance, having heard Osborne’s superb recordings both of this work and of Turangalîla- Symphonie. However, the impact of this performance exceeded my wildest expectations. It was an unforgettable experience, notable for Steven Osborne’s remarkable physical and mental stamina but above all for his tremendous musicianship and empathy for the music. Often I have read commentators talking about pianists producing an orchestral sound. This was the first time that I can truly say that I have experienced this; Osborne’s range of sonorities and colours was astonishing. Through him Messiaen’s remarkable vision was revealed in all its splendour.  I may never again get the chance to hear this amazing cycle live but if I don’t then I can rest content: this was an awe-inspiring experience.


John Quinn


Click here to read Steven Osborne’s conversation with Robert Beattie.