Scottish wizard’s Vingt Regards offers two hours of pure musical ecstasy.

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney

August 23, 2014

I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I believe Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus to be the great piano masterpiece of the 20th century (and yes, I know Rachmaninov, Ravel and Prokofiev had plenty to say back then as well). It’s also one of the most technically demanding works in the repertoire with a performance lasting over two hours, hence opportunities to experience it live are like hen’s teeth.

Our own century has no finer exponent of the work than the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, a man who (unlike some others) prefers not to come up for air when tackling this pianistic marathon. One might therefore have expected a packed Verbrugghen Hall for such a rare and prestigious outing, courtesy of some enlightened programming by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. As it was, several hundred of us slightly rattled around, which was a pity, and whether it was fear of Messiaen or fear of two hours without a comfort break I can’t help feeling Sydney might have done better. Their loss though, as this was one of the most remarkable and intense musical experiences we are likely to see in a good while.

A cycle that looks at the Nativity from 20 different musical and sacred perspectives, Messiaen’s music ranges from timeless, static chord progressions to almost orgiastic dances of religious ecstasy. That Osborne is master of the latter goes without saying – his prodigious technique has been tempered in the flames of Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky and Tippett – but perhaps it was his realisation of the unvarying pulse of Messiaen’s representation of the Divine that proved most remarkable. Time and again one was struck by his suppleness and grace, whether in his precise pianos and pianissimos, or the delicate fluttering of the right hand in the fiendish birdsong episodes.

Throughout such a deeply felt, reflective musical journey, where hypnotic patterns, colours and mystical time signatures most often compelled meditation, it seems crass to pick highlights, but I would mention a few of the most powerful moments.

For sheer beauty and lightness of touch, the Regard de la Vierge (a loving reflection of the Virgin contemplating the Godhead) was magical. Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus with its initial emphasis on simplicity, culminating in wave upon wave of religious ecstasy and a coda that seemed to last forever was breath-taking. Similarly, during Osborne’s rapt playing of the penultimate Je dors, mais mon cour veille (I sleep but my heart keeps vigil), you could have heard a pin drop.

For muscularity and pianistic virtuosity the wild, thundering dance of the Regard de l’Esprit de Joie with its almost Gershwin-like jazziness and its whooping, scampering figurations took the biscuit, followed closely by the extraordinary feat of Par Lui tout a été fait (By Him was everything made), with its echoes of Turangalîla, where Messiaen manages to represent all of Creation in peal upon peal of bells.

Of the final movement, Regard de l’Eglise d’Amour, the composer wrote “Here are bells, glory and the kiss of love – all our passions as we embrace the invisible”. That Steven Osborne pretty much achieved just that is a testament to his powers as a musician, and to the sense of communion that he generated over two long hours where time frequently seemed to stand still. That this was also the quietest audience I’ve heard in ages in itself speaks volumes. Another musical experience to tick off my ‘before I die’ list.