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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus
Jean-Rodolphe Kars (piano)
rec. live, 10 April 1976, Kleine Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
PIANO CLASSICS PCL10134 [57:14 + 69:54]

I hadn’t heard the name of the pianist Jean-Rodolphe Kars for ages until this set arrived for review. Now I know why. Kars (b. 1947) converted to Roman Catholicism in 1976 and he embraced his new faith so fully that he retired from playing professionally in 1981 and commenced studies for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1986 and, so far as I know, he continues his ministry in France to this day. His pianistic career had been a successful one: for one thing, he was a finalist at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1966, an achievement which launched him onto the international stage. Looking back to see if we had reviewed any of the recordings he made, I saw that Colin Clarke was very complimentary about a collection of recordings of music by Debussy and Messiaen (review). That set included two of the Vingt Regards. It has recently been reissued by Australian Eloquence but I don’t believe we’ve reviewed it in that incarnation (ELQ480 6576). Amongst other things, he also recorded the Delius Piano Concerto (review).

In 1968 Kars won the Concours de Piano Olivier Messiaen at the Festival of Contemporary Arts in Royan, France – the booklet includes a picture of him and Messiaen, taken on that occasion. Thereafter, he became something of a specialist in the music of the great French master. So far as I’m aware, he never made a commercial recording of Messiaen’s monumental cycle of twenty piano contemplations so it’s very good news indeed that this live recording from 1976 has become available. It was issued in 2017 to mark both the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Olivier Messiaen and also the seventieth birthday of Jean-Rodolphe Kars.

It’s a live recording and the listener is conscious of coughs and other noises from the audience, though it seemed to me that these lessened as the cycle unfolded: perhaps the audience became increasingly still as Kars’ performance drew them in. There’s vociferous applause after the tenth movement, ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’ and again at the end of the work. That didn’t bother me, though I wished the audience could have waited a few seconds at the end before according Kars a justly-deserved ovation. The booklet mentions a memory lapse in the sixth movement, ‘Par Lui tout a eté fait’, which results in the omission of a few bars: I don’t think that matters in the slightest in the context of a compelling performance both of the movement in question and of the cycle as a whole.

The recorded sound is better than I dared to hope. In fact, it’s far better, I think, than one has a right to expect from a recording made over 40 years ago. The sound of the piano is very well produced throughout its compass – the bass is wonderfully sonorous and there’s no hint of brittle clangour at the high treble end – and the success of the recording is all the more remarkable when one considers the dynamic range with which the engineers had to contend. The set is well documented, with a note on the music by Felix Aprahamian which incorporates many comments about the piece by the composer himself. That said, the note was written in the 1970s and has not been updated so it refers to Messiaen as if he were still alive. On the other hand, the biography of Kars himself is up to date.

As for Kars’ performance, it is, in a word, magnificent. I felt drawn in right from the start; he captures the serene gravitas and profound, quiet simplicity of ’Regard du Père’, each chord perfectly weighted. Throughout the cycle his delivery of the contemplative pieces and episodes is remarkable. So, for instance, his quiet presentation of the Theme of the Star and the Cross in ‘Regard de l’étoile’ (movement II) is wonderfully controlled and makes you overlook the coughs from the audience. He brings great delicacy to ‘Regard de la Vierge’ (movement IV). If anything, his delivery of the quiet movements is even more impressive in the second half of the cycle. In ‘Première communion de la Vierge’ (movement XI) I relished the rapt contemplation he brings to the Theme of God, with all the decorations perfectly voiced. Later, ‘Le baiser de L’Enfant Jésus’ (movement XV) unfolds serenely. This movement is surely analogous to the secularly sensuous ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ from Turangalîla; Kars gives a beautiful, devoted account of this movement. The sustained, mainly hushed rapture of movement XIX, ’Je dors, mais mon cœur veille’ is superb. Kars seems to have his live audience – and the listener at home – in the palm of his hand. You almost feel the end of the piece will never come, so reluctant are Messiaen and Kars to break the spell.

Kars may excel in the contemplative music but he’s no less successful in the mighty outbursts. The seismic fugal toccata of ‘Par Lui tout a eté fait’ (movement VI) is thrilling. Kars drives the music forward tumultuously until the huge climax where the Theme of God resounds fortissimo with both majesty and inevitability. Incidentally, at the conclusion of this movement Kars allows the final chord to decay naturally for what seems like an eternity – actually for 29 seconds. The exuberant tenth movement. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’ is full of joyful energy, just as it should be. His account of ‘La parole toute-puissante’ (movement XII) is hugely powerful and this is one instance where I admired the skill of the engineers in reporting so truthfully the cavernous bass notes. In ‘Regard de l’Onction terrible’ (movement XVIII) Kars brings out the dread majesty in the music through his playing. Finally, the complex and then majestic celebration of ‘Regard de l’Église d’amour’ (movement XX) is a pianistic tour de force in Kars’ hands, bringing Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus to a commanding conclusion.

From start to finish Jean-Rodolphe Kars displays the formidable technique necessary to bring off this cycle of pieces. More than that, though, he seems to have the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the cycle in his blood. I think that one should find this great cycle of piano pieces awesome in the true sense of the word. This magnificent performance certainly inspires awe in the listener.

I have three other recordings of this towering masterpiece in my collection: by Eugeniusz Knapik (review); by Yvonne Loriod herself (her 1973 recording); and by Steven Osborne (Hyperion CDA67351/2). I consider all three to be indispensable. This Kars version now joins the company of the elite.

John Quinn

Previous review: Stephen Barber (Recording of the Month)



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