Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus
Steven Osborne has only twice before been mentioned in the review pages of Gramophone: Andrew Achenbach found his playing ‘outstandingly sensitive and dashing’ in concertos by Mackenzie and Tovey (Hyperion‚ 10/98)‚ while Roger Thomas appreciated his wit in the jazzinflected sonatas of Nikolai Kapustin (Hyperion‚ 8/00). He faces a much tougher job in Messiaen’s Vingt Regards: not only music of exceptional difficulty but a score of which there are seven rival recordings currently available‚ six of them very good indeed. I have very slight reservations about even the finest: an occasional suspicion of hurry in PierreLaurent Aimard’s outstanding account‚ a few misjudgments in Roger Muraro’s‚ and so on. I have no such reservations about Osborne’s reading‚ which is not to say that I think him ‘better’ than Aimard or Muraro – they have their own individual qualities and he has his – but that there are two reasons for saluting this new set: because it is an extremely fine performance of the Vingt Regards and because it reveals a pianist of exceptional gifts.
Messiaen’s widow‚ Yvonne Loriod‚ invited Osborne to study the work with her after she heard him playing other music by her late husband. One can hear throughout not only her influence but‚ even more‚ the qualities in his playing that led her to make the offer. His command of sonority is prodigious: if you have never been able to take Messiaen’s talk about the ‘colour’ of particular chords seriously Osborne’s playing may change your mind. He also has a remarkable dynamic range‚ and these two qualities combine to provide both clarity and a tremendous climax in the virtuoso quasifugal textures of No 6 (‘By Him was everything made’) and‚ at the other end of the spectrum‚ to make perfect sense of Messiaen’s description of the opening bars of No 17 (‘The Gaze of Silence’): ‘the music seems to emerge from silence as colours emerge from the night.’ Indeed‚ Osborne is very good at quietness and silence: he has that indispensible gift for a Messiaen interpreter of patience‚ of letting a sound register and die away‚ of delaying an attack (for example in No 19‚ ‘I sleep‚ but my heart keeps vigil’) until the listener is almost longing for it.
Nor is he insensible to the fact that some of the Regards are frankly showy. No 10 (‘Gaze of the Spirit of Joy’) is dazzling; No 16 (‘Gaze of the Prophets‚ the Shepherds and the Magi’) is barbarously colourful. Perhaps most significant of all‚ he finds in No 15 (‘The kiss of the child Jesus’) not only the sweet quietness of its opening but the spectacular Lisztian display of its later pages.
Osborne is a very complete pianist indeed‚ and I look forward to his future recordings‚ of whatever music they may be. The recording is ideally responsive to the sheer range of sound that he draws from the instrument.