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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus

Peter Serkin (piano)
Recorded 11-15 June 1973, RCA Studio A, New York City, ADD *
BMG-RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876 62316 2 [54:43 + 67:48]

Completed when the pianist was just twenty-five years old, this iconic recording is notable for Serkin’s deep understanding of the composer’s sound-world and its emotional extremes, coupled with considerable instrumental prowess. Although Peter Serkin wasn’t the first to record these monumental pieces, his insights have almost congealed into legend over the years. Now, of course, many fine pianists have tackled the work, or portions of it. In just the last year I’ve heard sections by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Alexander Tselyakov, to cite just two.

The piece is in twenty sections, each ranging from two minutes to about thirteen, and incorporates a fairly wide spectrum of keyboard challenges; within the frame of Messiaen’s language, that is. If the work as a whole can be likened to a vast travelogue, most of the pieces are smaller journeys in themselves, often starting with one texture or motif, and then veering off into another as the piece progresses. Take one of the longer ones, No. 15, Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus, which begins with great gentleness. The opening has the simplicity and stateliness of a chorale, but this is soon disrupted by sequences that are more agitated, and the whole thing climaxes with a burst of what sounds like an ecstatic vision, before dissolving in an afterglow of glittering runs. Messiaen’s language sometimes has echoes of Scriabin or Prokofiev, but his relentless focus is unique, as is his clearly devotional outlook. Michael Steinberg, in his excellent notes, suggests that a devout Catholic might gain the most from hearing this cycle, which is probably true, but I can’t imagine many lovers of fine piano playing feeling cheated by Serkin’s extraordinary traversal.

One could write for dozens of pages in great detail about all of the parts, but I’ll leave the bulk for the listener to discover, since this two-disc set is well worth exploring and will repay the time spent many times over. Some of my favorites include No. 5, Regard du Fils sur le Fils, with its enchanting figures in the instrument’s higher registers, and its delicate final phrase that trails off into nothingness, or No. 6, Par Lui tout a été fait, with its harsh, throbbing, toccata-like opening. It continues brutally, aggressively, with more counterpoint than some of the others, and by the time Serkin reaches its feverish end you may be exhausted. Contrast that to No. 19, Je dors, mais mon coeur veille, the penultimate one, which telegraphs "we’re nearing the end" with its peaceful, relative tranquility. And then the final Regard de l’église d’amour presents Serkin with a panorama of challenges – it’s almost a summation of everything that has come previously – before the concluding chords that bring the entire enterprise to an almost abrupt close.

Serkin’s work throughout is pretty astounding, showing epic concentration, especially considering the early stage in his career when this was completed. His musicality is always at the forefront, and some of the pieces with extremes of repetition – patterns that can sound monotonous in other hands – make perfect sense here. He combines a keen feeling for the work’s overall reverent nature, with an ability to convey the surprise when an explosive passage suddenly flares up.

I cannot tell a lie. The sound, while very good, to my ears does not really compete with the best digital recordings of today. Unfortunately I have not yet heard Aimard’s recording, which is from all reports spectacular in sonic terms. But this is only a small caveat, and should not deter anyone from rushing out to buy this whilst it is available ... and who knows how long that will be. The crisply designed packaging includes a graphic reference to the composer’s love of bird songs, and Steinberg’s notes, as mentioned earlier, are a plus as well. He concludes, "If I had to demonstrate to the man from Mars what a piano is and what you can do with it, I could not do better than to play this breathtaking recording of one of the twentieth century’s truly imposing masterpieces." Indeed, I couldn’t have said it better.

Bruce Hodges

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