Monday, 22 December 2008

Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus

Concert of the Year ! I've been addicted to Aimard's recording of this for years (made just after his baby son was born), but wasn't prepared for just how good this recital would be. It figures. This was Aimard's personal hommage to Messiaen, one of the key concerts in the whole Messiaen centenary year. The performance of a lifetime ! I could hardly breathe ! Neither could the audience, many of whom were seriuosly big name pianists.

So in the midst of the holiday hooha and Enforced Jollity, this is a chance to contemplate something deeper than crashing your credit card on things that won't last. This will. This is the gift of deep meditation, whatever your religion might be.

Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus is quintessential Messiaen, but perhaps the "inner sanctum" without loudness or abandon, a core of extreme peace and stillness. Catholics follow the Stations of the Cross because the visual images are an aid to contemplating the meaning of the crucifixion. So in Vingt Regards, Messiaen presents a series of images in sound, each stage illuminating a different aspect of Christ’s birth. Messiaen’s “stations of the Nativity” is an inner pilgrimage.

Vingt Regards begins in silence, long before a single note is heard. Aimard sat utterly still for a while before even reaching out towards the keyboard. Obviously, he reveres the music and the composer, who was like a father to him. Yet this moment of reverential calm is artistically crucial. It is a transit from the bustle of the outside world into a mood of mystical veneration. Aimard played the first Regard du Père with such controlled pace that the gaps between notes seemed to hover, creating space for the images to unfold gradually in the imagination. He managed too, to extend the vibration of the piano strings for an extraordinarily long time, so they floated long after the keys fell still, soundwaves extending into the void. It was as if the piano were being played by an invisible presence. Perhaps it was, for Messiaen’s intention was to express the divine through music.

The central mystery of the Nativity is the idea that God becomes man. Medieval paintings depict the Madonna gazing with rapture, yet also emphasize the human nature of her relationship with her child. Again, Messiaen portrays this intimacy in his music by the gentle, unhurried atmosphere. Aimard brings out detail, like the steady ostinato of the Virgin’s heartbeat, rising with excitement as the Angel announces her pregnancy. Later Le Baiser de L’Enfant-Jésus interlaces the divinity theme with playing of great warmth and delicacy. It was ecstatic here.

Yet always in the background is the Crucifixion. The sixth Regard, Par lui tout a été fait, frantically turns back on itself, as if in time itself. The ostinatos scream and the glistening “starlight” chords shoot backwards as if they were being sucked back into a black hole. Aimard makes virtuosity seem easy but it isn’t. So perfect was his discipline in the 19th Regard, Je dors, mais mon cœur veille, that, although the pace was again extended, each note flowed lucidly. Then Aimard launched into the magnificent final Regard sur l’Église d’Amour. The colours here were exquisite. Again and again that confident ascending line appeared, with flourishes and sudden descending bass, as if it could also stretch out into infinity. Each time, Aimard revealed new, shining nuances. It was utterly exquisite. I wanted time itself to stand still, hardly daring to breathe.

This really was a historic performance. Aimard knows how important this South Bank tribute is, and how it will affect Messiaen’s reputation for decades to come. He spared nothing. This was perhaps the performance of a lifetime, eclipsing the remarkable 1999 recording in terms of depth and maturity. At the end, he looked shattered and ecstatic in equal measure, for this is music that refreshes the soul even though it must be gruelling to perform. But he must have felt rewarded that the entire QEH audience was standing in ovation. This wasn’t at all the kind of audience that goes to piano recitals to chase celebrities, rather than caring what music is being played (as long as it’s safe). On the contrary, this was an audience who were genuinely interested in Aimard’s approach to Messiaen. There were many composers and musicians present, some from France, Germany and Japan; but whatever their backgrounds, most people at this concert were there because they sincerely wanted to engage with this amazing music. Aimard, too, had his priorities right. He bowed several times to a small group of students seated on makeshift seats beside the piano, where they could watch his fingering and pedal in greater detail than could be seen in the stalls. One day, perhaps, it will be students as enthusiastic as these who will take on the mantle of performance, bringing Vingt Regards to audiences still unborn.

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