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Great new 5 star review in Fanfare

April 7, 2023

Huntley Dent

Five stars: A monument of Messiaen’s output receives a glorious performance.

MESSIAEN Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus  Kristoffer Hyldig (pn)  OUR RECORDINGS 6220677-78 (2 CDs: 138:11)

Messiaen wrote his massive two-hour “stations of the Nativity” in Paris in 1944, at a time that tested all believers’ faith in God. The fact that he had been a prisoner of war himself, that God had not rescued France from the ravages of war, and that horrifying atrocities were being committed beyond imagining did nothing to shake Messiaen’s faith. He wrote this music to express “a language of mystical love that is mltli-faceted, powerful, and tender.” That credo describes the vast majority of his mature works, and the excellent Danish pianist Kristoffer Hyldig approaches the Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus) as a spiritual journey for the performer as much as for the composer.
Hyldig delivers such a beautiful and dedicated performance that I accept his spiritual approach, even if my first priority has to be musical excellence. (Hyldig mentions that he comes from a Protestant background in Denmark, so his connection to Messiaen’s mysticism isn’t through shared Catholicism.) It is also worth pointing out that Messiaen didn’t consistently portray himself as devotional. In a quote that opens the booklet he declares, “But if my music is a spontaneous act of faith, without premeditation, it is by no means a mystical music.”
I’m uncertain about the ingenuousness of that statement, since it contradicts so many instances where Messiaen absolutely describes his music as mystical. One can accept it as cosmic and at times terrifying music. Hyldig’s spectacular performance is a tour de force and is completely satisfying on that basis. The Steinway Model D-274 that he plays is a rich-sounding instrument, and OUR Recordings’ engineering is as good as it gets for presence and power. If you are attuned to Messiaen, these 20 character pieces are often as gripping as Liszt’s Transcendental Études or Ligeti’s three books of concert etudes.
At the risk of going off on a tangent, I wonder what path leads a listener into Vingt regards if religion doesn’t matter or is even alien. Messiaen provided two kinds of commentary, the first an abstract technical analysis in a preface to the published score, secondly in one-line descriptions attached to each regard (which here is translated as “gaze,” although I think “contemplation” is more apt).
For example, the first movement, Regard du Père (Contemplation of the Father) has the following comment from the composer: “And the Lord said, ‘This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.’” Within this scriptural context, the stage is being set for Jesus’s birth, and yet the music consists of a series of common chords played slowly with no special musical significance so far (the whole piece is held together by the repetition and development of certain chords and gestures). The feeling is like a cantus firmus more than anything spiritual.
The second regard brings us closer to Messiaen’s enigma. Titled Regard de l'étoile (Contemplation of the star), it receives the comment, “Horrors of grace … while the star shines naively, surrounded by a cross …” The Crucifixion hangs over the entire score, as the program notes testify, so this Christmas story is far from the sweet, nostalgic sentiment of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ. Messiaen uses sprays of notes, which is his signature way of depicting stars, along with tolling bass notes, which with him connote cosmic vastness. Nothing about this relates to the Star of Bethlehem in either a pictorial or narrative way.
Messiaen isn’t out to tell a story, clearly, and his musical vocabulary, to my ears, is 1930s-to-1940s avant-gardisme. That he has created his own complicated idiom is undeniable, and so are his mystical Catholic underpinnings. But I think he is trying to have his avant garde and eat it too. That is, we are welcomed in the front door with beguiling spiritual associations like the Spirit of Joy and the mystery of divine love, embellished with Messiaen’s poetic descriptions, while the music evokes adjectives like abstract, technical, hard-headed, concrete, and idiosyncratic.
That’s not a criticism. The enigma of Messiaen centers on how religion accords with the avant garde. If you think that it accords very well, you will appreciate, or even become devoted to, Messiaen, Penderecki, Giya Kancheli, and Sofia Gubaidulina, who stir the same mystico-modernist pot. If you are indifferent to the religious trappings of their music, another way in must be found.
That’s not hard to do with Vingt regards, because the musical ingredients are common to almost all of mature Messiaen: bird calls, bells, granitic block chords, sharply angled harmony, jarring juxtapositions of dynamics and chord changes, and his own ear for chromaticism. (One disadvantage of Vingt regards, however, is that a solo piano deprives Messiaen of one major gift, his orchestration, at which he was a master.) I imagine I am more impatient than many listeners when it comes to Messiaen’s metaphysics, and long stretches of his vocabulary don’t have a cumulative power for me, with exceptions like Des canyons aux étoiles.
Hyldig is a Messiaen specialist and founder of the Messiaen Quartet in Copenhagen. His riveting performance comes close to convincing me that Vingt regards should be heard as a totality, and anyone committed to the score will want to experience every note. (The whole enterprise is so serious that I can’t resist the cynic who dubbed the work “Give my regards to Jesus.”) At the very least, one of the twentieth century’s monumental icons of the piano literature here receives a glorious outing.
Huntley Dent 07.04.2023

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