New Recording of Messiaen’s “Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus”

Messiaen cover

WP 2019 - 2MESSIAEN: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus / Martin Helmchen, pno / Alpha 423

Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes Upon the Infant Jesus) is his longest piano work, his most mystical and also his most religious. Although I normally shy away from religious music as a rule, this work, like J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion, can be enjoyed without the religiosity as an extended meditation on the spirit, which even Deists, Buddhists and Taoists can relate to.

I do, however, disagree with Martin Helmchen when he says that “this masterpiece seems to come from no traditional genre, has no previous model at all in the piano literature [and] stands alone as a highpoint, a pinnacle of 20th century piano music.” An outstanding and mystical piano suite it may be, but it’s not true that it “has no previous model.” There are several similarities between it and Charles Koechlin’s Les heures Persanes (The Persian Hours) of 1913-19, mixed in with a bit of Schoenberg and Messiaen’s own system of altered chord positions. Both works employ a system whereby the melodic line is “led” by the harmonic progression rather than vice-versa, as is the case in Messiaen’s orchestral music. This aesthetic was largely misunderstood and unappreciated by many American critics and listeners even through the 1960s, when a Stereo Review critic spent three pages lambasting the composer for the ugliness and incomprehensibility of his music, but today we hear it differently thanks to such composers as György Ligeti who took this aesthetic one step further.

Which is not to say that the music is accessible to many listeners; on the contrary, its complex form still baffles many who approach it unless one is somewhat attuned to Messiaen’s aesthetic. It may also startle those who expect a continuous stream of soft, amorphous sounds to hear such an episode as No. 3, L’échange, with its pounding chords and aggressive volume, but Messiaen was always a composer who enjoyed contrasts, and just because this is ostensibly a religious work does not mean that he would abandon that course.

One also hears the composer playing with rhythm in an unusual manner, i.e. in No. 4, Regard de la Vierge. This, too, can be related to Koechlin’s work which was intended to be mystical but not necessarily religious, which is why I say that the music can be appreciated by non-Christians. It is a reflection not of Jesus as a character so much as a reflection of Messiaen’s spiritual and emotional reaction to Jesus as a wholly spiritual character, which can be interpreted as the offspring of the God that created our Universe. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this interpretation of Messiaen’s music applies in part to everything he wrote, although since this is a piano suite and not an orchestral or organ work his response was generally more intimate. I’ve said several times that I admire the composer’s orchestral and piano pieces but not necessarily his organ works, where my reaction is that of a dark, almost sinister and clearly uncomfortable aesthetic. I’m sure that, were he still alive, he would vehemently disagree with me, but that’s my reaction and I can’t help it. I’m very sensitive to the mood of a piece as well as its structure. And here I completely agree with Helmchen when he says that

While listening, I for one find it extremely difficult to maintain a critical distance to the music’s programme. When we do not actively resist, Messiaen takes us directly into a state of contemplation and meditation. He sends us on a cosmic journey, whose goal is to encounter and worship God. The music’s artistic value would be just as great without any programmatic aim.

This very personal response to Messiaen’s goal informs Helmchen’s performance. One is much less aware of his technical prowess as a pianist as one is of his complete absorption of the music into his fingers. He does not so much “perform” the music as he draws it out of the keyboard, like the magician who suddenly produces soft, floating silk scarves from his sleeves. In the louder, more aggressive pieces, Messiaen seemed to me to be channeling the vast, unlimited power of the Universe. Clearly, no infant, Jesus or otherwise, had this kind of power at such an early stage of development, but the Universe clearly does. The very long (11-minute) Par lui tout a été fait, despite a few moments of respite, is almost violent in its description of unlimited power, and in a piece like this Messiaen almost sounds a bit like Sorabji, another composer whose work was often ignored, negatively criticized and misunderstood. Helmchen has the full measure of this long, complex score, however, and so is able to make it all coherent even in its wildest and most outré manifestations, such as No. 13, Noël, which sounds like a snippet from Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. Again, to quote Helmchen,

While listening to the whole cycle in one go (something I’d urge every listener to do) there is an incomparable sense that one’s perception of time is slowly altering. To endure slowness, stillness, is a huge challenge for interpreters and listeners alike – as it is for everyone in the world today! Yet in this stillness there is an intensely concentrated experience of the moment (No.9), the most extreme inwardness (No.19), and an infinite variety of colours (No.16).

There are, of course, a few other outstanding recordings of this suite available, the most famous being those by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Teldec, Steven Osborne, who studied the piece with Messiaen’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, on Hyperion, and Loriod herself on Warner Classics. All are outstanding, but for me, personally, Helmchen’s recording is right up there with them. In fact, I rather like his combination of mysticism and no-nonsense directness even a bit more than Aimard, who seems to be everyone else’s first choice. Having been raised on pianists who viewed music as architecture, I found myself agreeing with Helmchen’s approach to every phrase in each piece. He pulls the work’s huge, sprawling structure together brilliantly, and for me hearing it evolve with such clarity was as important as his approach to the mystical elements. Of course, your reaction may vary, but I think I’ve given you enough of a description of what Helmchen does here to allow you to decide for yourself. Although I am a critic with very strong feelings and opinions about certain works and particular interpretations, I know from personal experience that everyone hears music differently and has different emotional and intellectual reactions. Thus all I can do is to tell you how the music and the performance struck me and what I liked or didn’t like about it. There is, clearly, a little more of a German than a French approach to several of these pieces, meaning one geared more towards a steady pulse and continuous flow rather than a looser, more flexible rhythm with a great deal of rubato, but that’s exactly why I like it. Too much “butterscotch and mysticism,” as one critic cited in a review of this work, leads not to an appreciation of what Messiaen created but to an overly-flowery view of the music. Helmchen is mystical when he needs to be but avoids sentimentality and floweriness, which is much more to my taste.

Thus I say, go for it. I think you’ll be alternately moved and thrilled.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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