Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Unforgettable Account of Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, London 16.4.2016. (CC)

Messiaen, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

Arguably the most significant piano cycle of the twentieth century, Messiaen’s astonishing set of meditations on the infant Jesus (1944) is particularly associated with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a pianist who has repeatedly championed, and inspired, some of the finest music of our times (one need only think of his performances of Ligeti’s Etudes). Only a couple of days previously, Aimard was the pianist in that composer’s Couleurs de la Cité celeste (see review by Robert Beattie here).

Aimard gave a complete performance of the Vingt Regards at the Barbican itself in 1999, and his recording is rightly considered a classic. So here was essentially an “update” on his current thoughts for those already initiated into his interpretations, but also a demonstration of magnificent musicianship. Aimard clearly sees this as a collective of twenty exploratory pieces, some vastly different from each other yet that move inexorably onwards under an umbrella of awe to the Christian deity. In terms of the music itself, one can play spot the Gershwin influence a few times; in this performance, more than previously, the influence of Ravel was evident; while in other movements it felt like the piano was going to explode under the weight of, on one level, the dynamic level of Aimard’s playing, on another level the sheer import of the subject matter. Perhaps Bartók made an appearance in ‘Regard des prophètes’. The immediate standing ovation – one of the first to his feet, I noticed, was a certain Mr Alfred Brendel – was entirely warranted. As a war-weary reviewer, I seldom join in these ovations, but Aimard provided me with an exception.

Aimard had occasion to prove his mastery at once, as it happened. He wait for silence before the first piece, and as the coughers took their last chance to clear the airways, a voice was heard from the back in entreaty for someone else to turn off their mobile phone. “Unsettled” hardly covers the ensuing frisson; yet Aimard proceeded to enter, straight away, into the wonder of ‘Regard du Père’. Here were some of those hints of Ravel; more impressive was Aimard’s layering, his differentiating of Messiaen’s strata perfectly. The second movement, ‘Regard de l’Étoile’, revealed Aimard’s sensitivity to the expressivity of harmonic shifts, and their contrast to single lines (or lines in octaves); the chorale of the fifth movement, ‘Regard du Fils sur le Fils’, positively glowed: here was perfect concentration, too. Against this, the chords in ‘Regard du Silence’ were like so many shards of glass.

This was a performance that included glimpses of the tenderest corners of Heaven as well as the most frightening, awe-inspiring ones. (Messiaen realised that the Christian God is not just fluffy clouds and tambourines.) The bass of the third movement, ‘L’échange’, the furioso cosmic dance that is ‘Par Lui tout a été fait’, found thunderous expression here. Then there was the ominous forward tread of ‘La parole toute-puissante’. Yet never once did the piano tone break, a remarkable achievement when once considers the awe-inspiring noise coming out of the Steinway;. Some movements encompassed both (‘Regard de la Croix’ moved to a terrifying climax marked by huge bass-register eruptions, its power uncompromising). Yet in terms of tenderness, it is hard to imagine a more touching ‘Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’, given here in a performance that unfolded perfectly, its slow rhythm perfectly judged, the lowest of dynamic levels perfectly maintained, its chords perfectly regulated. Aimard was so imaginative with textures here, bringing this internal experience viscerally to life. The only negative was that Aimard sang along, Pollini-like, in this particular movement particularly – the habit was only sporadically noticeable elsewhere.

The power of the final piece, ‘Regard de L’Église d’amour’, was remarkable, particularly when one considers the sheer duration and previous demands of the entire cycle. Aimard’s fire was undimmed, finding Lisztian flourishes in amongst the magisterial repeated chords.

This was a truly outstanding performance, one which audience members could properly consider themselves privileged to experience. Unforgettable.

Colin Clarke