Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944)
I Regard du Père [8:23]
II Regard de l’Etoile [2:57]
III L’Echange [3:42]
IV Regard de la Vierge [5:04]
V Regard du Fils sur le Fils [8:02]
VI Par lui tout a été fait [10:10]
VII Regard de la Croix [4:08]
VIII Regard des hauteurs [2:19]
IX Regard du Temps [3:46]
X Regard de l’Esprit de joie [8:21]
XI Première communion de la Vierge [8:19]
XII La Parole toute-puissante [2:32]
XIII Noël [4:46]
XIV Regard des Anges [4:39]
XV Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus [12:35]
XVI Regard des Prophètes, des Bergers et des Mages [3:00]
XVII Regard du Silence [5:40]
XVIII Regard de l‘Onction terrible [6:41]
XIX Je dors, mais mon coeur veille [11:03]
XX Regard de l’Eglise d’amour [13:49]
Eugeniusz Knapik (piano)
rec. 25-28 September 1979, Filharmonia Narodowa, Warsaw
DUX 0848/49 [56:57 + 73:11]

We’ve come across Eugeniusz Knapik before on these pages, but as a composer rather than a pianist (see review). According to Wikipedia he is currently professor and director of composition at Katowice Academy of Music. The history of this recording is worth repeating. Knapik had heard John Ogdon perform the Vingt regards at the 1969 Warsaw Autumn festival, and the experience had a huge impact. He was the first Polish pianist to perform the work in its entirety, and this recording was made after a number of live concerts. The original planned release in 1981 was cancelled after martial law was imposed in Poland, and the recording has languished in the Polish Radio archives until now.
There is no reason this shouldn’t be a top notch recording even considering its vintage, but it’s worth pointing out that this is indeed a superb production. The signal is cut fairly softly so you’ll find yourself bumping up the volume somewhat, but the analogue-taped piano sound is full, rich and warmly detailed, and tape hiss is not an issue.
Top choice in this piece has for some time now been Pierre-Laurent Aimard on the Teldec label. While he gives this music plenty of space to create its spells of wonder, natural spectacle and visionary terrors and comes in at around 116 minutes, Knapik is even more expansive in several movements, making for a total of approximately 130. This is by no means the longest rendering of this work, with Håkon Austbø on Naxos nearer 133 minutes for example, but if you are used to more urgent readings there are several moments at which Knapik will make you sit up and take notice, or should that be; spread out and become transported to places beyond.
Such transports are there from the outset, with a Regard du Père which lays out a verdant carpet of acceptant blessing, the power of the Father present but restrained in those darker harmonies. Regard de l’Etoile shoots and sparkles with firework brilliance against the grimmer shadow of the cross, while the insistently repeating elements of L’Echange build with remarkable power. One of the most beautiful movements, Regard de la Vierge is played with stunning poetry, but not without a sense of the human – a hint of impatience perhaps? The mysterious depths open into Regard du Fils sur le Fils, where the sounds of nature heighten a profound sense of nocturnal infinity.
…and so the descriptions can continue, both as a narrative of the music itself, but more intended to give an impression of how Eugeniusz Knapik brings Messiaen’s remarkable piano ‘symphony’ to life. You sense a genuine belief in the religious conviction behind the notes, with the technical ability to communicate this at every stage on the journey. Take the relative simplicity of the Regard de la Croix, where there is some intangible feel in the way the octave lines are placed, some colour in the tone by with they are articulated, somehow conveying an embrace. The initial gentle blessing of the Première communion de la Vierge is played with utmost tenderness by Eugeniusz Knapik, with rhythmic urgency and technical brilliance in the faster passages further on, and followed by a strikingly forceful La Parole toute-puissante, which extends into the tumultuous opening of the Noël. Knapik’s dynamic layering and contrasts are as good as any I have heard. His poetic touch with Messiaen’s gentler moments are truly affecting. This is affirmed by the timeless kiss, Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus, with which Knapik makes us all fall in love with the whole divine aura of this creation.
Durations may be longer than many in this Vingt Regards, but there is no sense in which time is being stretched beyond credibility, or that Eugeniusz Knapik is becoming self-indulgent. All of the decisions with regard to the performance are utterly convincing as far as I’m concerned, and Knapik’s technical prowess is a further imprimatur, with only a very occasional moment in the final dramatic Regard de l’Eglise d’amour where one senses him being stretched. There are numerous recordings of this work now, but Knapik’s achievement is all the more remarkable for being only the eighth ever, according to the booklet. I’ve heard many excellent recordings, including Joanna MacGregor’s fairly romantic view of the work (see review), and Paul Kim’s highly impressive account, but rarely have I heard the intent behind the music revealed in quite such a potent fashion. Eugeniusz Knapik is not the only choice, but if you want to get close to Messiaen’s vision of the infinite wonders of this religious message then you may find this opens the door wider than you might have anticipated possible.
Dominy Clements

Opens the door on Messiaen’s vision ever wider.