Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

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Bertrand Chamayou
(Warner Classics, two CDs)
Olivier Messiaen’s ‘colossal saga’ enjoys a personal but unsentimental performance that ranges from ferocity to exquisite colour

For what is unquestionably one of the great landmarks in 20th-century piano music, Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jésus) has received relatively few outstanding recordings in the three-quarters of a century since its first performance, given by Yvonne Loriod, who would later become the composer’s second wife. Loriod’s own recording, made in 1956 under Messiaen’s supervision, has a unique authenticity, but of more recent versions the two that standout, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a former pupil of Loriod) and Steven Osborne, are both now more than 20 years old.

Perhaps the sheer scale and difficulty of the two-hour cycle has deterred some pianists from tackling Messiaen’s biggest single keyboard work (the Catalogue d’Oiseaux is longer, but was assembled piecemeal over a number of years), but for Bertrand Chamayou the Vingt Regards has been part of his musical life since he was nine. He calls it “a colossal saga, an odyssey”. “What really shines through”, he says, “Is the triumph of evidence, a sense of beholding a certain truth.” That may be a valid way to approach Messiaen’s only explicitly religious piano work (though in a profound sense everything he composed was informed by his faith), but it is obviously not the only one; Aimard’s performance, for instance, relates the piano writing to the music of the post-1945 generation of composers, many of whom studied with Messiaen, while Osborne roots the cycle in the great romantic tradition running back through Liszt.

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