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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944)
track listing below review
Eugeniusz Knapik (piano)
rec. 25-28 September 1979, Filharmonia Narodowa, Warsaw
DUX 0848/49 [56:57 + 73:11]

I’m shortly to have a rare opportunity to review a live performance of Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for Seen and Heard. In preparation for that performance, which is to be given by Steven Osborne, I wanted to do my homework. However, I made a deliberate choice not to get Osborne’s own recording down from my shelves but, instead, to listen to this Polish recording.
Messiaen’s huge cycle of twenty piano pieces is, in my view, one of the commanding utterances of twentieth-century music. You don’t have to be a Christian believer to be able to appreciate it since it can be evaluated on its purely musical merits. However, if you are a believer then Messiaen’s vision – and I believe that word is appropriate – will resonate all the more strongly. In the booklet the title of the work is translated as ‘Twenty gazes on the child Jesus’. That’s a perfectly valid translation but I prefer the word “contemplations” because that can work in two ways: it works as the contemplation of Jesus by, say, God the Father but it also works as the listener contemplating the Christ child. If you adopt that meaning then Messiaen’s score can function, as I’m sure he intended, in the same way that many of the devotional paintings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance did; as an aid to meditation on spiritual mysteries.
However, whether one approaches this cycle as a devotional work or as a set of piano pieces – it’s both, I think – it’s still a towering achievement and a seminal work in the output of one of the most important and influential composers of the last century. Composed in 1944, it was first recorded in 1956, by Yvonne Loriod and then, I believe, it had to wait until 1969 for another recording when no less than three more were made. One of those was by the British pianist, John Ogdon and we learn from the booklet notes that it was hearing Ogdon perform the cycle in Warsaw in that same year that inspired Eugeniusz Knapik to learn the work. After performing it several times from 1977 onwards he made this studio recording in 1979 but political upheaval in Poland forced a postponement of its scheduled release in 1981 and it is only now that it has been released.
To say that it has been worth the wait would be a massive understatement. I have two exceptionally fine recordings in my collection - Mme. Loriod’s second recording from 1973, and Steven Osborne’s much more recent Hyperion release (CDA 67351/2). I’m not even going to try to determine which of the three is ‘best’ – in such a work that would be almost impossible and also a gross impertinence – for all three pianists give marvellous overall performances and show many insights along the way. What I will say, however, is that in my opinion this Knapik reading demands to be regarded as being among the very finest committed to disc.
One thing that struck me as I listened was Knapik’s scrupulous observance of the score. You may say that such should be expected but Messiaen’s score is copiously marked with directions as to dynamics and speed changes and, so far as I could tell, Knapik rarely departs from Messiaen’s text and that’s not an inconsiderable achievement in a work of this length and complexity. The one thing that I must confess that I haven’t checked is his adherence to metronome markings and that’s simply because there are so many of them. Dominy Clements noted in his appraisal of this recording that, at 130 minutes, Knapik’s is among the more expansive recordings. Dominy has had access to rather more recordings of the piece than I have, I suspect. All I can say is that in terms of overall timing – which doesn’t always tell the full story - Knapik’s timing of 130 minutes is pretty similar to Osborne’s 126:39. However, Yvonne Loriod, the work’s dedicatee, took 120:16 in 1973. Given Loriod’s unique affinity with the score it may well be that her tempi are closest to what Messiaen expected so perhaps Knapik does not always precisely observe the composer’s instructions as regards tempo.
However, I’m not sure how much that matters because, to my mind, what Knapik achieves consistently throughout this mesmerising performance is to bring us close to the spirit of Messiaen’s vast score. He’s wonderfully expressive in the many poetic, indeed tender, passages. Thus, for instance, he achieves a real sense of inwardness in Première communion de la Vierge though he also imparts energy and, as the score requests, enthusiasm in the ‘Magnificat’ passage of that piece. He’s equally beguiling in Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus where the Theme of God is treated as a berceuse. At the start of this movement Knapik conveys splendidly the tranquil calm that Messiaen sought and thereafter he sustains beautifully this profound contemplation of Divine Love. At the moment of the Kiss (from 9:35), with its pre-echoes of Turangalîla, the ecstasy is palpable. This is a wonderful reading of the piece, sensitive to all the nuances of Messiaen’s writing.
So, the poetry is there in this reading but so too is the power and strength when required. The vehement dance that is Regard de l’Esprit de joie is a great release of energy here. Prodigious virtuosity is required to put across this exciting music and Knapik is fully up to the challenge. This movement is, surely, a dry run for the Joie du sang des étoiles and Final movements in Turangalîla. Notes spray about all over the place and complex, jazzy rhythms abound. You really need to hang on to your hat when listening to Knapik’s tumultuous account. In Regard de l‘Onction terrible his playing has great strength and he brings out the awesome power in Messiaen’s writing. He’s just as successful in the fearsomely demanding toccata that is Par lui tout a été fait. He projects the music with great dynamism and you really get a sense of the primal power of Creation.
The last two movements are magnificent. In Je dors, mais mon coeur veille Knapik displays great concentration in his playing and catches wonderfully thegentle ecstasy in the music. He’s expansive, taking 11:03 whereas Osborne takes 10:29 and Loriod 9:57, but I never felt the music was being unduly drawn out. The playing is expertly controlled and this rapt and profound reading is completely persuasive. And then Regard de l’Église d’amour is truly the culmination of the cycle. Knapik’s timing of 13:49 is fairly close to Loriod’s 13:04 and his reading is patient and hugely impressive. When we reach the point in the score that Messiaen marks ‘Glorification du thème de Dieu’ (6:41) the listener has a sense that this is the point to which our journey, begun nearly two hours earlier, has been leading all along. Shortly thereafter (10:33) comes ‘Triomphe d’amour et de joie’ when Messiaen’s writing strains the physical limitations of the piano in his efforts to express ecstasy. Knapik’s playing is magisterial at this point and he ends the cycle magnificently.
This recording of Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is a profound experience and it’s a musical triumph. It seems to me that not only is Eugeniusz Knapik fully the master of the manifold technical challenges of this vast work but also that he’s the master of the philosophy behind the music. This is a prodigious achievement and we must be grateful that at last the recording has been disinterred from the vaults and made available. It’s a notable addition to the discography of this masterpiece.
The recorded sound is pretty good though quite often I was conscious of the quiet ‘twang’ of the piano strings. However, given that the recording is well over thirty years old now it’s fully acceptable. Dux provides a good booklet note in Polish and English.
John Quinn
See also review by Dominy Clements

Track Listing

I Regard du Père [8:23]
II Regard de l’Étoile [2:57]
III L’Échange [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’Église d’amour [13:49]