Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus

‘Every time I return to the score of Vingt Regards, I’m amazed that a work so ambitious and diverse is built on such simple ideas. Each movement is literally a meditation on a theological aspect of his Roman Catholic beliefs, yet the contemplations are meticulously and dramatically paced: they can be serene, fierce, languid, rigidly doctrinal or even humorous. Messiaen challenges our Western notions of time and structure. Vingt Regards may well represent the austere and magnificent edifice of a Gothic cathedral, but the detail and pacing of each movement owes as much to Hindu rhythm and Balinese Gamelan.’

Not all athletic players are sporty: music has MacGregor
Joanna MacGregor is one of contemporary music’s great individualists, a uniquely enlivening presence who slices her way through all the barriers she sees as false and limiting. Even so, it was good to be reminded, in her bracing performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus at Cadogan Hall, of how absolutely centred in the most rigorous traditions of great pianism her music-making is.

Written during the liberation of France in 1944, this work is one of the most monumental in all piano literature, its twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus coming in at around two hours. MacGregor played it without a break, and with an expressive intensity that never faltered, her tone immaculate at every dynamic level. What’s more, the piece’s virtuoso demands, especially the sixth and tenth movements – after which, as MacGregor observes, many pianists feel the need to lie down – were tackled with an accomplishment that left any sense of mere determination far behind. These daunting examples of Messiaen’s writing at its most complex and Lisztian were despatched with a bravura that contained no suggestion of the strenuous, let alone of cheap display. They were, quite simply, exhilarating on both an intellectual and a spiritual level.
But MacGregor could also encompass the tenderest gazes, such as Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus, which begins like a Schumann romance before wafting off into the realms of Messiaen’s perfumed eroticism…  in its vast scope and commanding authority, MacGregor’s performance would be hard to match.

The Independent

Available on