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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (1944)
Alfonso Gómez (piano)
rec. August 2020 at Laussaal, Freiburg, Germany
KAIROS 0015081KAI [55:27 + 72:56]

Despite its length, and its difficulty for the performer, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards has become the most popular of his piano works. This is well deserved, because it is a work of great variety, of immediate appeal, and even those who do not respond to its religious aspect can enjoy the flamboyance of some of the movements and the inward peace and calm of some of the others. It has been frequently recorded, and a few years ago I had the privilege of reviewing the remarkable and deeply spiritual version by Jean-Rodolphe Kars (review), the work which not only led the pianist to embrace Christianity but to give up his career to become a priest. In that review I set out the background to the work, so shall not repeat it here.

This latest version is from Alfonso Gómez, who has a flourishing career in Europe, but has not, as far as I know, played in the UK. He has specialised in contemporary music, of which he has made several recordings. For a contemporary specialist this work is a classic, and Gómez brings to it a polished technique and a good understanding of the idiom. I particularly liked his quiet playing, for example in IV Regard de la Vierge, XI Premičre communion de la Vierge and XV Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus. He is good at distinguishing separate lines, to which Messiaen often gives different dynamics, for example in V Regard du Fils sur le Fils, and XIV Regard des Anges. The birdsong motifs which occur throughout are sharply and precisely presented, and he is excellent at fast, light and quiet playing, as in VIII Regard des hauteurs. The drumming and tamtam effects in the deep bass come out well.

Where he seems less impressive was in the some of the loud and fast numbers, which call not only for a fine technique, which he certainly has, but also for a kind of exuberance and joy which I felt was rather lacking. VI Par Lui tout a été fait, a formidable fugue with several subjects, is very accurately expounded – you could play this to a student and say ‘This is how it goes’ – but is rather straitlaced. In IX Regard du temps I feel Gómez is counting rather than feeling the irregular rhythms. XII La parole toute-puissante is dour rather than clangorous and menacing and XIII Noël does not contrast with its predecessor in being joyeux as marked. And while Gómez certainly gives a good account of the very challenging finale, XX Regard de l’Eglise d’amour, it somehow lacks the culminating weight and overwhelming sense of release which it should give. And, though I cannot put my finger on it, I did not get that spiritual sense which I get from the best performances.

I am possibly being hypercritical, because, if this were the only recording, one would welcome it gladly. The recording is clear and there are good sleeve notes. But there is ferocious competition in this work. Yvonne Loriod, the dedicatee, for whom it was written and who later became Messiaen’s second wife, recorded it twice (1957 and 1988) and these versions clearly hors concours. So, I would suggest, is the version by Kars I mentioned earlier. The current front-runners are Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Teldec and Steven Osborne on Hyperion. Aimard is possibly the more modernistic, and closer to Loriod, and Osborne the more clearly romantic, but they are both fine performances and, I have to say, superior to Gómez.

Stephen Barber

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