★★★★★ Two hours contemplating the infant Jesus really is heaven on earth.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
March 14, 2016

There aren’t many musicians on the planet who can claim the degree of imprimatur of French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Hand-picked at the tender age of 12 by Yvonne Loriod, he was taken under the wing of (some would say almost adopted by) the Messiaens, an experience that gave him rare insights into the man and his music. His time with Pierre Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain brought him more contact with the composer, and the Vingt Regards, Messiaen’s magnum opus, has been in his repertoire for many years, a work that he claims it was “inevitable” that he would play. The opportunity to hear him interpret the two-hour plus cycle in Australia, then, was an event not to be missed.

A self-effacing presence, dressed soberly in black, Aimard’s focus is firmly on the music and only on the music. And what focus. His commitment and involvement, not just with the music but with his (equally black) instrument is total. I honestly can’t recall hearing and seeing a pianist so tangibly alert to the sound he is producing. “I wouldn’t just talk about size,” he told me recently when I asked him about the challenges of Messiaen’s marathon. “I would also speak about the timbral dimension, the dimension in modernity, the dimension in fertilising the instrument with other musical dimensions, and the way Messiaen has created a new genre in music. Why is it called “Regards” and not Sonata or Moment Musicaux?” That full range of responses was very much in evidence in Aimard’s reading. Again and again, you are aware that his choices stem from the sonic effects swirling around him, tempered by the philosophical and spiritual demands of the composer and his grand musical plan.

Setting off with the Regard du Père, a six minute exploration of a miniscule chord sequence representing the ‘Theme of God’, Aimard begins his epic contemplation as he explores both a series of visual images associated with the nativity, and a complementary series of ideas associate with catholic philosophies of God, the Son, the Trinity, and its relationship to humankind. If that sounds heavy going, it is and it isn’t. At times, Messiaen can be very straightforward (take the readily identifiable bells of Noël). At others, he can be inscrutable (try the oblique Regard du Silence, or the powerful Regard de l’Onction Terrible – most of us probably have forgotten what the terrible unction actually was, let alone how it might sound in music). However, as guides go they don’t get much better than Aimard who leads us through the imagery by strength of will, commitment to his music and a sense of communion so tangible you can see his audience physically leaning in to come closer and share the musical message.

There were many, many special moments in this recital. Aimard’s control of time and dynamic is extraordinary, hence several instances where the audience genuinely felt suspended with him in a moment of infinitude. In the big pictures, such as the joyous, toe-tapping (and yes, I could see many toes tapping) Regard de l’Esprit de Joie, or the wild menagerie of birds whose songs make up the Regard des Hauteurs (Contemplation of the Heights), Aimard can really summon up Herculean powers, his hands like hammers on the keys. But perhaps where he came closest to touching the Divine was in the still, small movements like the radiant berceuse that is the Regard de la Vierge, where his mobile face and penthouse eyebrows exuded concentration, and especially in Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus, an extraordinary and intense exploration of sound and space.

This was a quiet audience – I’d say a spellbound one – until the well-deserved standing ovation. Coming out of this superb concert, many were observed standing around in the foyer shell-shocked, a tribute to this profound work and its ideal interpreter. Melbourne audiences should not hesitate.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs the same programme at Melbourne Recital Centre, March 20