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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 2
Vingts Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944) [123:08]
Paul Kim (piano)
rec. January 2002, Patrych Sound Studios, New York City
CENTAUR CRC 2627/2628 [53:19 + 69:49]

The recordings were also issued as the work of Joyce Hatto on CACD 20032 in 2006

 


The American pianist Paul Kim, whose complete survey of the piano works of Olivier Messiaen was completed in 2004, studied at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. It was during his student days that he first encountered the Catalogue d’oiseaux, and as a result of widely acclaimed performances he came to the attention of the composer, from whom he received guidance and encouragement. Yvonne Loriod described Kim’s performances on these recordings as “perfect in every way: technique, sonorities, rhythm, colours and emotion.”

Much as I would like to approach this review without the tainting influence of the Barrington-Coupe/Concert Artists fraud, in which this particular recording of the Vingt Regards was passed off as the work of Joyce Hatto, it is impossible to avoid making reference to this scandal. The only positive aspect of the case has, I hope, been to bring Paul Kim’s cycle to a wider audience – at least the publicity can do him and the Centaur label no harm. As a reviewer, all I can hope to do is put the record straight – no pun intended.

As Christopher Howell has pointed out in his review of the Dukas Sonata, part of the Concert Artist’s fake involved manipulating the speed of the originals and the balance of the piano sound. I’ve had lots of ‘fun’ getting the two versions to synchronise, albeit only momentarily as phasing sets in immediately, and can at least confirm that they are indeed the same recordings. The ‘Hatto’ sound has been cut at a higher level, and the piano given some bass boost and a warmer balance, possibly to give more of the impression of an older instrument, although I note that the fake makes no attempt to claim the instrument is anything other than a Steinway. The tighter, less blowsy sound of the original creates an even more spectacular effect; and the build up of tension in such pieces as the incredible Par Lui tout a été fait will have you climbing the walls with even whiter knuckles. As things stand I don’t really care who is playing, this is still ‘the one’ for me.

Paul Kim is a recognised exponent of your heavy romantics like Rachmaninov, and the penny drops in his phrasing and lyrical expressiveness in movements like Regard de la Croix. I don’t have Yvonne Loriod’s recordings to hand, but on referring to the scraps I do have in my collection, such as her ‘Cetti’s Warbler’ from the Catalogue which crops up as a filler on an old Supraphon LP of ‘Réveil des oiseux’ with the Czech Phil. conducted by Václav Neumann, I gain the impression that Kim’s interpretations are in general fairly close to the composer’s wife’s – a wise decision. Another recording to which I hadn’t referred previously, but managed to beg and borrow for a short time ‘post Hatto’ is that of Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Teldec. I would say Kim and Aimard are about equal if this were a competition in virtuosity and recorded sound, but for the rest I can only say it’s a case of swings and roundabouts. Aimard has the advantage of innate Frenchness and that prodigiously dazzling technique, but Kim’s sense of space and timelessness might just give him the edge on the spirituality stakes. His own programme notes are a real bonus: extensive, eminently readable but also fearlessly analytical and comprehensive, reflecting their author’s Ph.D status.

More or less ignorant of the Hatto ‘phenomenon’ before receiving the faked discs last year, I wasn’t particularly starry-eared about the achievements of a little old Miss Marple producing pianistic miracles in the Indian summer of her career. As a result I don’t have the feeling that my objectivity was particularly skewed in favour of this recording as ‘a Hatto original’. Arguably, my review might have been different had I received it only as Kim, but listening again and comparing notes, I find myself agreeing with myself. “Sure thing” you say, “he would say that, otherwise he’d look like an idiot and lose his reputation into the bargain.” Well, I’m used to looking an idiot on a frequent basis in at least one of my day jobs, and as far as reviewing goes I don’t have much of a reputation to loose to start with, so, in the end, who cares – I just feel saddened and perturbed at having been taken to the cleaners in the first place.

Whatever the arguments, here is an adapted version of my original review, the words now finding their true resting place:             

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. Rarely have I heard such powerful and athletic as well as poetic pianism in this music as in this recording by Paul Kim.

A number of versions of this great work have passed through my CD player but only two versions currently remain, neither of which will be easy to find, for which my apologies – 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, and remember seeing the ‘Church window’ mock-up used to make the cover photo parked in his garage. 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. Returning to this set after hearing Kim’s however, 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 Kim it is Man who is ultimately drawn into unity with the Devine being, rather than ‘God’ driving him to leap off a cliff in sheer frustration. Another straightforward but surprisingly intangible quality is that Kim’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.

Paul Kim 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 he always maintains transparency through the sheer mass of notes. His 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. Kim’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 


 

 


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