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

Twenty six years after Messiaen’s death it seems that it is the works of his middle period that have become most firmly established in the general repertory. These include the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, the Turangalîla-Symphonie and this vast cycle of piano pieces, which lasts over two hours and makes a complete concert in itself. He wrote it during 1944, during the final months of the German occupation of Paris, but it concerns itself not with that but with his deep Catholic faith and the virtuosity of his student Yvonne Loriod, who was, many years later, to become his second wife.

As his largest work to date it exploits all the techniques he had developed. In fact around the same time he wrote a book expounding them. They include his modes of limited transposition, which largely replace the normal major and minor scales; rhythmic innovations derived from Indian music including non-retrogradable rhythms, i.e. ones which can be reversed without change; percussive possibilities often using the very lowest notes of the piano, drumming effects; birdsong – not as developed as it was to become later – and agrandissment asymétrique, in which a phrase is repeated with gradually increasing intervals. There are three motto themes which come round. The term regard can be translated as gaze or contemplation, but the emotional range of the work is far wider than this may suggest. There are some slow, quiet and contemplative pieces, but also others which are exuberant and joyous. They are nearly all technically very challenging. All this is informed by his faith. If this combination sounds rather like Liszt, that is quite appropriate: they both shared a kind of flamboyant Counter-Reformation spirituality which is very different from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges it offers, the work has been both popular and widely recorded. I have counted at least twenty recordings, and there must be others which have fallen by the way. Yvonne Loriod, the dedicatee, recorded it twice, and her accounts obviously have a particular authority, but as with any great work, there is more than one way of playing it. At this point enter Jean-Rodolphe Kars. I remembered his name from a few recordings, mostly of French repertoire, many years ago, but then he mysteriously disappeared. His story is much stranger than that. You can read his own account here, but I shall summarize. His parents were non-practising Austrian Jews who had to leave their home in 1938 because of the Nazis. He was born in Calcutta, then part of British India, in 1947. He showed ability at the piano, studied at the Paris Conservatoire and began a professional career. He was greatly drawn to the music of Messiaen, and not only to the music, but also to his faith. In June 1976 he was converted. He then experienced a call to the priesthood. In 1981 he gave up his career to train for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1986 and for many years been chaplain at the attractive Burgundian town of Paray-le-Monial. He has said that he considers Messiaen to be his first spiritual father.

This recording is of a live performance Kars gave in 1976, at the height of his career and just before his conversion. He brings to it not only a superb set of technical skills but also a deep understanding of the music. I noticed again and again the tenderness of his playing in the quieter pieces, such as IV ‘Regard de la vierge’, IX ‘Regard du temps’ and XVII ‘Regard du silence’. His chording is immaculate and the chords are beautifully balanced, for example in II ‘Regard de l’étoile’, XIV ‘Regard de Anges’ and XVII ‘Regard du silence’. Where Messiaen superimposes different rhythms and textures he clarifies them, and he makes sense of the often complex rhythmic patterns, for example in V ‘Regard du Fils sur le Fils’. And he is fully equal to the big virtuosic numbers, such as VI ‘Par Lui tout a été fait’, X ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’, which concludes the first half with a wild, ecstatic dance, and XVI ‘Regard de prophètes, des bergers et des Mages’.

However, more important than any of these is a quality which is easy to recognise but very hard to describe in any detail. This is the deep spirituality which infuses all his playing. You can hear it from the very first notes of the opening ‘Regard du Père’, and as much in the energetic numbers as in the quieter ones. This is a precious quality.

As this is a live performance, you can hear occasional coughs and rustles, but the piano sound is amazingly good, full and rich, and not at all like the thin and shallow sound which was for some reason often given to recordings of recent works in those days. Only a very quiet background hum between the movements show that this is an analogue recording of over forty years ago. I should mention that Kars suffers a memory lapse towards the end of VI ‘Par lui tout a été fait’, omitting some repetitions of a phrase. It hardly matters. The sleeve note, in English and French, includes Messiaen’s own descriptions of the pieces, but was written in the 1970s when he was still alive and has not been updated, There is also an account of Kars himself, including a note of his pleasure that the recording was issued in 2017, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Messiaen and the fortieth of Kars’ baptism.

As I mentioned, there are many other recordings of Vingt Regards. I have three others on my shelves, Joanna MacGregor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Steven Osborne. But this one stands apart.

Stephen Barber

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