Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (+works by Cheung, Takemitsu, Murail, Kurtag, Harvey)
- Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
- Recorded 2022
- Erato 0190296196669 (2CD)
Olivier Messiaen’s epic piano masterpiece, the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus), has been very well-served on disc ever since Yvonne Loriod’s pioneering recording on Erato, and there are great interpretations to suit every taste, from the virtuosic (Béroff, Peter Serkin, Aimard) to the reverential (Austbø, Kars), and everything in between (Osborne, Muraro, Loriod).
To this distinguished list, add Bertrand Chamayou’s new recording. Chamayou’s vast expressive palette, sensitivity to color and splendid technique have been defining features of his artistry ever since his standard-setting complete recordings of Liszt’s Années de pélerinage and Ravel’s piano works. And in the Vingt Regards, there is probably no pianist today better suited for the job of realizing Messiaen’s unprecedented expressive and technical demands. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the toccata-like Regard de l’Esprit de Joie (track 13), a formidable finger-buster that taxes even the most accomplished of piano technicians (and a touchstone movement that can make or break a performance). Not only does Chamayou negotiate the flurry of notes with aplomb, but he also effortlessly teases apart the complex textures by employing an infinite range of dynamics, articulation and touch, all the while highlighting the music’s fervent passion and urgency.
Yet what sets this recording apart is its sheer lyricism, permeating through even the most static textures and the most convoluted harmonies. As evidence, look no further than the Regard du Père (track 4), where Chamayou meticulously sculpts the Thème de Dieu (Theme of God) through judicious voicings at a tempo that perfectly accommodates both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the music. Or consider the tour-de-force of the Par lui tout a été fait (track 9), where Chamayou manages to imbue even the gnarliest of textures with a perpetual singing quality — I’m thinking particularly of the endless stretto sequence of dense chords (around 4 minutes), or that glorious section after the gargantuan climax where “all creation sings the Theme of God” (about 7 minutes), which is often reduced to mindless pounding under lesser hands. Messiaen’s music can strike some as austere and unyielding, what with its pungent chromaticism and constant repetition of immutable motivic blocks that seek to embody a timeless, superhuman quality, as befits such a divine subject matter. But Chamayou’s emphasis on melodic shaping humanizes the music to a degree I never thought possible — quite a feat, really.
I find that several movements have been better served elsewhere, but I suspect this boils down to a matter of personal preference more than it reflects an error of judgment on Chamayou’s part. For instance, compared to the crystalline, sparsely-pedaled birdsong in the Regard du Fils sur le Fils in Osborne’s recording, Chamayou’s more rubato-laden treatment of the shifting chords, and his softer-focus twittering (track 8), lessens the music’s vibrancy and contrast. Likewise the open fifths in the Regard de l’Onction Terrible (track 21) lack the granitic power and sense of awe that one finds from many other readings. And there’s some strange bleeding-over in the notes that mar the otherwise remarkable tenderness of the opening of Le Baiser De L’Enfant-Jésus (track 18). Perhaps it’s due to some stickiness in the piano’s mechanism, but it’s an audible annoyance that should have been rectified.
Small quibbles aside, this is as intelligent and moving a performance of Messiaen’s masterpiece that I ever hope to hear, and the five homages to Messiaen – kinetic in the Cheung (track 1), taciturn in the Kurtág (track 24), apocalyptic in the Harvey (track 25) – make for excellent hors d’oeuvres that serve to underline Messiaen’s genius even further. The recorded sound is first-rate too, rather close-up but not for a moment lacking in dynamic range or atmosphere. All told, an exceptional Vingt Regards that merits an easy recommendation.
An outstanding recording of Messiaen’s piano masterpiece that holds its own alongside the many established greats. Chamayou’s is a vibrant, passionate, intelligent, and above all lyrical reading, granting a human face to Messiaen’s occasionally forbidding language that is deeply sincere and uniquely moving.