VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT JESUS, by Olivier Messiaen. Performed by Joanna MacGregor. St George's, Bristol, Thursday 20th December 2007.
Well, seeing as 2008 is the anniversary year of one of my favourite composers, Olivier Messiaen, I did a spot of internet browsing to see what concerts were being offered up as part of the tribute. Quite a few as it turns out - there's a festival going on at the South Bank, his complete organ works are being performed at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, his opera 'Saint Francois d'Assise' is being staged (in the US and Netherlands, I believe, but unfortunately not the UK - that is one work I would love to see live, though I'd have to be in a suitably contemplative frame of mind, otherwise all that solemn ritual could bore me stiff...)
During this little spot of research, I realised that the celebrations seemed to be beginning early: at 8PM this evening (the 20th), in fact. In the converted Anglican church of St George's, Bristol, pianist Joanna MacGregor gave a performance of the very demanding 'Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus', a series of 20 'regards' -'gazes' would probably be the best English translation, although I suppose in essence they're really meditations in essence - on the child Jesus. So, for instance, you have 'regard de l'espirit de joie', 'regard de la Pere,' 'regard de la Vierge', and so on - all drawing on traditional Catholic symbolism and mysticism, both that of various well known thinkers and Messiaen's own, somewhat idiosyncratic version/vision (encompassing as it does Hindu and ancient Greek rhythms, ecstatic/erotic/religious desire, elements of atonality and dissonance sitting alongside almost lush/filmic melodies that might seem in bad taste in other contexts. Plenty of spicy harmonies, crashing left hand notes hanging in a pedal-driven haze under sprinkles of high-pitched right hand birdsong, chords inexorably moving their way up the keyboard, bizarre, off-kilter lullabies.
Digression: this picture, as should be obvious, does not show the concert I'm reviewing: I didn't take my camera with me, and this was the only decent picture of the St George's interior I could find on google image search. Shame it doesn't show the work of art above the stage very well, but I think it gives some idea of the setup.
The concert was advertised as being by candelight, which was something of a red herring, as there was also quite substantial lighting coming from ceiling chandeleirs and various other light sources as well. That is, apart from at one point, about three-quarters of the way through, when these were all turned off, leaving only the candles and MacGregor silhouetted at the piano - which I thought fitted in very well with the whole air of intimacy and mystery that the piece radiates, but which was apparently a mistake, as the other lights came back on afterwards (of course, the fact that she probably couldn't read the score in near-darkness was probably a major factor in that decision).
I arrived a few minutes late, due to waiting around for ages at a bus-stop (and, sure enough, after the wait, two came along at once...), and so missed the first movement, 'Regard de La Pere.' As I sat down and gathered my preliminary thoughts, I wasn't entirely convinced by MacGregor's performance - her jazz leanings were apparent with the dexterous way in which she handled the work's complex rhythms (although at times even she seemed to be showing signs (however miniscule) of strain - maybe just nerves, which disappeared as she really got into the music). However, I did feel that she took it a bit fast - admittedly Messiaen's extreme slowness can seem overly ponderous in the wrong hands, so it's a very delicate balance to be trodden, between dull plodding and seeming to almost glide over what he's written, thus losing the emotional significance, the nuance which has to be teased out of perhaps just single notes or phrases. The recordings I own (Peter Serkin, on an old triple LP set I picked up in an Oxfam shop - not sure if it's still in print - and Messiaen's prodigious protege, Pierre Laurent-Aimard) perhaps have the balance just slightly more to my liking. That said, there's no such thing as an ideal performance, and I'm not convinced by the idea that this performance can exist even in one's head - our idea of how a piece of music sounds is created by the performances we hear; we cannot just come to a piece completely fresh or completely new (unless we are competent enough musicians/sight-readers to decipher the score, and in the case of Messiaen, that's a pretty tall order for most people).
So, MacGregor soon settled in (perhaps taking things a bit slower, at a more considered, but by no means laboured pace), and, particularly during the second half, really got to the heart of what the piece is about. Obviously, there is the very dark, vaguely nightmarish writing, symbolising the awe and grandeur inspired by God, by creation, and so on. This is something Messiaen perhaps addressed most notably in his piano concerto 'Des Canyons Aux Etoiles', inspired by a visit to American canyons, and the overwhelming effect they had on him (the same sort of ideas as the Romantic 'sublime'); also in the penultimate scene from St Francois d'Assise', when St Francis receives the stigmata. The soundworld he uses to convey these emotions is in line with a lot of twentieth-century modernism (Schoenberg and all those that followed - though not nearly as cerebral and dry as a lot of academic modern classical can be), and can cause a lot of people to switch off. As I overhead one person saying as they were leaving the concerthall, "it's too dissonant - I just can't get past that to engage with the rest of it." That was partly my experience when I first encountered Messiaen: he was, I suppose, my way into the avant-garde, having experienced pretty traditional fare before (with someone like Debussy being about as far out as I got). But once you accustom your ears to it, you realise that this is only one element of his work (and not a bad thing in itself, at all). Messiaen's music is deeply inspired by his Catholic beliefs, and he very much emphasises the transcendent, the mysterious, abstract concepts such as 'love' and 'peace' which music can capture perhaps better than any other art form (because of its inherently abstract nature). This can lead to opulent, quasi-erotic orchestral canvaseses (the Turangalila Symphony or Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine), immensely slow-moving, mournful/hopeful melodies over static chords (the 'Louange' movements from the Quattor de la Fin Du Temps, the song of the angle from St Francois), or to something perhaps unique to Vingt Regards.
This, in fact, was one aspect of the work that I hadn't really noticed before: a soothing, lullaby quality, that alternates with crashing, pounding granite blocks and virtuoso sparkle-trails. Hence the title of this post: in the (I think) 16th or 17th regard (I somewhat lost track during the performance, as MacGregor only left very brief pauses between movements), the 'theme of joy' (one of the work's leitmotifs, which appears in various guises in several of the movements, giving the whole thing an overall architecture and unity) is transformed from an exotic, slightly queasy dance into a gorgeous, hushed song. Your pulse and heartbeat drop a few notches, and the whole room seemed to have lapsed into reverie, before the fire and fury of the next movement jolted them back, and there was a collective straightening of shoulders, scratching of heads, and clearing of throats. The tender meditativeness combined perfectly with the panel on the wall above the piano, a depiction of Jesus' ascension into heaven, standing in a curious, arcane, dance-like position in the sun above his golden-haloed crowd of disciples; at once inscrutable, other, unknowable, yet also incredibly present, tangible, full of emotion. That, reduced down to its essence, is what Christ means: God and man, God and child, all-powerful ruler and helpless sacrifice. A figure of paradox, but not contradiction - a beautiful conceptual idea, whether or not you buy into Christianity. And I guess this is the achievement of the Vingt Regards, that it reveals this about its subject, in its multi-faceted gazes on him; it is what makes what seems to be a very emotional, abstract piece also a profoundly philosophical and thoughtful one.