Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant-Jesus Original recording remastered, Import
Written in 1944, when Messiaen was 36, this work is often viewed as a masterpiece of the 20th century. It is formidable in size, length, volume, and visionary ambition. A devout Roman Catholic, Messiaen drew inspiration from the Church and its symbols, as well as from the sights and sounds of nature, especially the bird-songs that he loved and incorporated into his music. The 20 movements of this work are meant to illustrate different ways of contemplating the Nativity. They bear elaborate titles, which however do not seem to illuminate the music, at least for those unfamiliar with the religious background. But this does not really matter to the actual musical experience. The work's most pervasive characteristics are its obsessive repetitiousness, and, apart from a few soft, beautifully lyrical sections, its relentlessly high decibel level. The sustained intensity and aggressive ferociousness of the banging and crashing can be quite terrifying. Contrast is created through different textures, tempi, moods, and sudden short-lived drops in dynamics. Messiaen's genius found expression most arrestingly in his orchestration; he exploits, combines and contrasts instrumental colors and timbres with extraordinary mastery and imagination. Here, he almost succeeds in turning the piano into an orchestra, making it sing, speak, growl, clang, crash, and scream. Sometimes it seems to carry on a conversation between different registers or between contrapuntal, chordal, and call-and-response elements. The harmonic structure is fairly simple and essentially static. There are strong echoes of Debussy, of jazz, and of waltzes a la Richard Strauss. The performance is spectacular. Peter Serkin, long one of Messiaen's foremost interpreters, triumphs over all pianistic, sonic, intellectual and emotional demands. Piling sonority upon sonority, finding melodic voices in the huge chords and contrapuntal lines in the thick textures, he keeps even the slowest sections from sagging and turns the fast ones into powerful, scintillating cascades, leaving the listener dazzled and exhausted. --Edith Eisler
For more virtuosic interpretation, check out Beroff's very thrilling and sensitive EMI recording, also bargain price!
Messiaen has invented a variation on Debussy's discovery that the piano can be released from formal structure into free expression, color painting, and mysteriously shifting moods. However, Debussy employed a much wider harmonic range. Messiaen has some favorite chords and exotic effects, including his famous birdcals, that are displayed across a wide range of rhythms and fragmented phrases.
You'd never expect that such a long, rather opaque work could become a hit with audiences, but it has. I msut admit that Messiaen's idiom becomes hypnotic, and the simple forms, plus the absence of much dissonance, makes it easy for listeners to sink into the music.
Peter Serkin was a pioneer in the Vingt Regards, and although later recordings have shown wider dynamic ranges and fiercer attack, his inward way seems perfect--this CD is a classic of modern music performance.