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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

This disc has been withdrawn from sale. It is possible that this recording was not by Joyce Hatto but by Paul Kim/

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingts Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944) [124:27]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. Concert Artists Studios, Cambridge. Regards 1-10, 8 September 2004; 5 January 2006, Regards 11-20, 10 September 2004; 6 January 2006.
CONCERT ARTIST CACD 20032 [55:14 + 68:59]

 

I have to admit to being one of those legions of the sadly ignorant who had, until recently, never heard of Joyce Hatto. This great omission from my musical world has now been rectified thanks to the recognition she has received through Musicweb-International and elsewhere, and I was more than delighted to be able to experience her playing in one of the greatest cycles for piano solo of the last century.

Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus has just about everything: virtuosic pianism, mystic beauty, demands from and rewards for the listener in an elusive balance to which listeners will always have an intense and powerful response. Joyce Hatto would have been no younger than 75 when even the first of these sessions were recorded, but potential purchasers need have no fears about this being an ‘old’ person’s performance. Rarely have I heard such powerful and athletic pianism in this music. This, combined with half a lifetime’s experience of the work and a direct affinity with the times in which it was created, make this a remarkable sound document of almost intoxicating potency. Hindemith remarked that ‘she recreates this complex and demanding piece not in her own terms, but with a Higher Authority that defies understanding.’ That ‘Higher Authority’ was still there right up to these, some of her last recordings.

A number of versions of this great work have passed through my CD player but only two versions remain – John Ogdon, recorded in 1969 and issued on Decca’s Enterprise label in 1991, and Malcolm Troup, recorded in the late 1980s on Altarus/Continuum. Ogdon’s recording still sounds fairly good despite some expected tape hiss, though the hard piano sound in the louder sections can be a little tiring after a while. The meditative opening Regard du Père and the lovely Regard de la Vierge are both broad and timeless with Ogdon, and his definition and characterisation of the different symbolism-laden themes has to my mind rarely been surpassed. I do like the Malcolm Troup recording on its own terms though have to hold my hand up to some sentimental association with it, having sat in on one or two of the editing sessions with Chris Rice of Altarus. The piano sound on this issue is remarkably rich and gorgeously resonant, and while there are some corners where detail and accuracy are slightly wanting. Troup has a fine touch in general, but returning to this set after hearing Hatto’s I do now find some of the interpretations a little on the heavy, sometimes almost leaden side.

Having one’s old favourites blown away by a newcomer is what this job is all about, and I find myself rediscovering this music completely and utterly. It’s as if someone was not only giving me a master-class in how it should be done technically, but revealing the message behind the notes at the same time. One of the more difficult movements to bring off, L’échange is a case in point. Other versions can end up too insistent, with the repeated thirds, the ‘God’ figure, ending up sounding like nagging, rather than an infinite length of silken rope, constantly drawing the increasingly egocentric ‘Man’ back to the centre. When you hear Hatto it is Man who is ultimately drawn into unity with the Divine being, rather than ‘God’ driving him to leap off a cliff in sheer frustration. Another straightforward but surprisingly intangible quality is that Hatto’s birdsong sounds to me more like birdsong than pianism. The ‘joy’ which the birds represent in Regard du Fils sur le Fils comes over as a hair-raising truth, rather than a technical challenge.

Joyce Hatto does of course have more than ample opportunity to reveal a staggering technique in the more heavyweight movements, such as Par Lui tout a été fait and La Parole toute puissante in which she somehow manages to maintain transparency through the sheer mass of notes. Her control; rhythmic and dynamic, is absolute, but there is no sense in which the sheer abandon of this music is in any way repressed – it’s a wild ride, and rightly so!

There is no point in this set where I raised eyebrows or scratched chin in puzzlement, and the recording itself is of demonstration quality – you can sometimes actually feel the strings bending. Each interpretation of this work has its own merits, but there are few which betray no weaknesses. Hatto’s reading is rich both in images and emotional associations: the indignation of the Angels in Regard des Anges is a genuine marvel, and the following Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus tender beyond words. It is also a traversal, a journey, a narrative – a cycle which is more than the sum of its parts, which parts in turn simultaneously hold strength in both unity and individuality. The incredible final Regard de l’Eglise d’amour is both a struggle and an affirmation, and we are spared nothing. If you play this set through in one go and are listening properly you will arrive at the conclusion exhausted, exhilarated and inspired, and I can’t imagine Messiaen would have wanted more.

Dominy Clements

Jonathan Woolf has also listened to these discs

The immense and unremitting challenges of Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus are here met with comprehensive mastery by Joyce Hatto. The digital demands and timbral and tonal complexities are intense. And beyond even the question of getting around the notes lies the way the sound is produced, and what kind of sound world one evokes.

Hatto’s solutions are far too complex to be reduced to a mere sentence but uppermost among them are questions of beauty of tone and tempo relation. We know that Messiaen sanctioned wide tempo divergences; these seem for him never to have been absolutes. In tonal matters we find that Hatto never sacrifices tone to embrace some of the more speculative sonorities in which some other pianists do, from time to time, indulge.

Having listened to a number of those competitors during my immersion in Hatto’s Messiaen has served only to deepen my admiration of her. Listztian drama is always embedded in Messiaen, no matter how expressive the patina may become, and it helps that she was one of the most consistently impressive of Lisztian players. The fulcrum of her digital prowess in these twenty movements is incendiary, the balance between hands perfectly graded, weight and sonority acutely judged, and the maintenance of clarity as evident here as it was in her many other recordings.

Hatto’s Messiaen is neither becalmed nor religiose. Her opening movement sets the marker. She is fast, insistent and suffused with a pressing urgency. Others find different solutions. Peter Hill [Unicorn-Kanchana UK DKP 9122/23] is more yielding and pliant, Håkon Austbø [Naxos 8.550829/30] quite delicate and reserved, Joanna McGregor [Collins 70332] is eager to explore the tonal disparities between treble and bass, Steven Osborne [Hyperion CDA 67351/52] has a powerful gravity. None are quicker than Hatto; indeed hers is possibly the quickest opening movement on record. It sets up a powerful sense of momentum and tension. This is one traversal in which one never feels a sense of becalming or stasis. Which is not to imply intemperance because Hatto seems to judge internal tonal and tempo contrasts to perfection. She finds a certain celestial coldness in Regard de l’étoile, a nasality and rapid interchange between themes. With Hatto things are coalesced in the most imaginative and far-seeing way. Her rapidity of articulation leaves even a seasoned Messiaen specialist such as Peter Hill very much in her wake.

But she always finds time; in L’échange despite her implacable sense of drive the music always has time to speak. She doesn’t favour Osborne’s staccato or McGregor’s halo of sound or Hill’s more cautiously considered obsession. The jazz-tinged rhythms of Regard de la Vierge find a home in Hatto. And the birdsong in her Regard du Fils sir le Fils has a pointillist delicacy, an avian limpidity that attests to a fabulous control. She’s slower here than most; not as voluptuous in her songs as Osborne but more definite. There are distinctly Prokofievian overtones to her driving, insistent, spiky Par Lui tout a été fait. She yields to none in technical address nor her architectural acuity. Hill sounds a touch pawky, McGregor driving but square, Austbø’s rather cloying recording damages the immediacy of his playing, and Osborne is decidedly more gimlet eyed and inflexible.

Not to belabour the point, these are consistent features of Hatto’s performance. She is incisive and joyously vocalised in Regard des hauteurs, ensuring that the sectionality Osborne prefers is not part of her arsenal. She is sure in her tonal delineation in Regard du Temps – note how she deliberately hardens the tone and makes the most of internal contrasts. In Premiere communion de la Vierge with an immediately arresting opening, Hatto proves intensely alive and also intensely noble in her exposition of the God theme. Others find different solutions; Håkon Austbø for instance on Naxos prefers a forthcoming straightness, Hill a more interior slowness, Osborne on Hyperion a more measured and withdrawn introspection. Hatto is quicker by far than all these.

She characterises each movement with a powerful response fusing ferociously inner clarity with limitless reserves of tonal subtlety – hear the rhythmic pull and treble delicacy of her Regard des Anges. One finds time and again that competitors sound distinctly more sectionalised than Hatto, who proves masterly over the sometimes excruciatingly long spans of intense focus demanded in these pieces. In the dangerous Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus she resists the cloying sweetness favoured by others – Hill for instance. There’s a strength in Hatto’s performance, a refusal to linger or to sentimentalise. As for dynamic gradients, listen to the shades and shadows of Regard du silence. And as for rubato, note that she is sparing and superior in its usage. Osborne for instance caresses the line of Je dors, mais mon Coeur veille with fulsome affection. It sounds gorgeous but Hatto’s forward-moving playing possesses both clarity and warmth and a crucial rhythmic spine. So much wonderful playing.

Yvonne Loriod’s performance on an Erato set has now, apparently, been deleted. Ogdon’s 1991 Polygram is equally unavailable and was in any case technically flawed in places. Peter Serkin [RCA 62316-2] is still available and highly impressive, despite a slightly unsatisfactory recording - one should note it was recorded back in 1973. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s utterly compelling traversal [Teldec New CD 3984-26868-2] focuses on the drama, some of it blistering in his hands, and is by contrast superbly recorded.

The two Hatto discs come housed in a box and feature some elucidatory though wittily agnostic notes from William Hedley – in fact his agnosticism frequently borders on atheism where Messiaen’s methodology is concerned, which is all the more bracing to read.

Aimard, Osborne and Serkin are in their ways outstanding exponents. If you can find the Loriod it’s naturally of the utmost historic importance. But Hatto’s traversal now strikes me as fine as any on disc. It’s an outstanding contribution to the recorded legacy.

Jonathan Woolf

The Concert Artist Catalogue


 



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