Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Messiaen builds cathedrals in sound. From a single candle gently flickering in a quiet side chapel to the glorious fan traceries of the main transept, the private place for solitary prayer and contemplation to the awe-inspiring painted spaces where the many gather to celebrate the glory of God, his music is monumental in its scale and breadth, a hypnotic Sainte-Trinité in sound.

And if Messiaen is the architect, then the pianist who performs his music is the guide, sometimes tenderly, sometimes violently, always colourfully leading us through the aisles and passageways, the arches and niches, past gilded icons and kaleidoscopic stained glass.

Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is arguably the greatest piano work of the twentieth century, a work which more than holds its own against Bach’s Goldberg’s or Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas in its scale and breadth, its many challenges, technical, artistic and physical. It is a work of immense beauty, sensuous, powerful, sometimes brutal, thrilling, awestruck and awe-inspiring, ecstatic and intimate. It is also deeply personal and emotionally direct in its expression of the composer’s own profound Catholic faith; humble too in Messiaen’s ability to ground the music in a way that makes it accessible through his use of recurring themes and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive architecture – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

I adore this music.

It begins with a whisper, barely a heartbeat, delicate chords, softly-spoken yet vividly hued (colour is so significant to the synaesthesic Messiaen) and repeated octaves, occasionally interrupted by luminous bell sounds; a profound, introspective contemplation. And then, some 130 minutes later, it ends in a blaze of glory, bells clanging across in the keyboard in ecstasy, “all the passion of our arms around the Invisible One….”

The extraordinary narrative arc and cumulative power of the Vingt Regards is akin to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though its message is closer to one of his Passions. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed without an interval, but pianist Steven Osborne, who has been playing this incredible music for almost 20 years, believes it should be played as a whole, without a break, to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.”

Steven Osborne, London 30 May 2013
Steven Osborne

The journey is remarkable, immense, exhilarating and overwhelming. Osborne knows this music so well that one feels at once totally at ease with him guiding us on this epic voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Speaking to him in the bar after the concert, I remarked that he seems very settled in the music (I first heard him play this work in 2013) and he commented that one just has to “go with it”. Such a modest description of such monumentality!

His virtuosity is restrained, yet his every gesture is freighted with meaning; he creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura, the music freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

The performance was perfectly paced, the silences as poised and significant as the notes themselves, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a single statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative, architectural effect of the whole. Here the rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy.

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On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad

Thus wrote Johannes Brahms of the Chaconne, composed by J S Bach as the final movement of the Partita No. 2 for solo violin. Throughout much of its three-hundred year existence, the Chaconne has been a source of fascination for composers and performers on instruments other than the violin, inspiring numerous transcriptions by composers as varied as Johannes Brahms, Feruccio Busoni and Leopold Stokowski.

A tour-de-force of instrumental ingenuity, musicianship and virtuosity, cellist and composer Joy Lisney’s own arrangement is the latest response to the Chaconne and attempts to illuminate Bach’s music through the cello, occasionally taking inspiration from the instrument itself but mostly staying as close as possible to the original.

The monumental Chaconne is the centrepiece of a programme including works by Chopin and Brahms, performed by one of the UK’s most exciting cello and piano duos, Joy and James Lisney.

The programme concludes with Brahms’  Regensonate in D; an intensely nostalgic work that Clara Schumann described as “blissful” and “melancholic” – music that she wanted to accompany her “at that passage from here to eternity”.

8 June – London, Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

Joy appeared on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune on Monday 6 May

 

 

 


Praised for her stylish playing, musical maturity, formidable technical finesse and keen advocacy for new music, Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years in a busy career combining the cello with composing and conducting.

She has been performing internationally since her teens, at leading venues including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol and the Southbank Centre, in concerts featuring some of the best known works for cello as well as specially-commissioned new music and her own compositions. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet in 2015 and she premiered her own composition ‘ScordaturA’ for solo cello in 2017 at St John’s Smith Square as part of the Park Lane Group concert series. Joy has also given world premieres of works by Judith Weir and Cecilia McDowall.

Read more


James Lisney’s website

 

Artist photos by Krisztian Sipos and Suzie Maeder

 

One of the world’s best pianists, Sir András Schiff, joins the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to perform some of world’s best piano music.

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Written 22 years apart, Brahms’ only piano concertos are snapshots of his life. The first is youthful, raw and expressive; the second is mature, structured and wiser. Both embody radical ideas of the 19th century, when revolution was in the air and artists joined political movements to overturn the old order.

The OAE performs these blockbuster piano concertos over two nights with Sir András Schiff, an extraordinary pianist and one of the world’s finest musicians. To complement the piano concertos, they also delve into music by Brahm’s mentor and inspiration, Robert Schumann exploring the complex interplay between political turmoil and personal anguish in composer’s life.

Pre-concert talks, Level 5 Function Room, Royal Festival Hall 6pm

New to Brahms? Enjoy an introduction to Brahms’ Piano Concertos at a free pre-concert talk by presenter Katy Hamilton.

On the second night, Dr Robert Samuels of the Open University will explore Brahms’ relationship with Schumann in a pre-concert talk

Brahms Piano Concertos with Sir András Schiff

Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 March 2019, Royal Festival Hall, 7pm

Further information and tickets


source: OAE press

(Photo: Yutaka Suzuki/Askonas Holt)

Southbank Centre’s Brutalist arts venues, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, will reopen on Monday 9 April, following over two years of refurbishment and redesign.

While many of us missed the QEH and Purcell Room during their closure, St John’s Square, not far away on the north side of the river, near Westminster, has benefited from increased exposure as it has been the home of most of the SBC International Piano Series concerts and some chamber recitals too, and it is good to see this fine building now firmly on the map of London concert venues. Meanwhile, the newly refurbished QEH and Purcell Room look fabulous, judging by these pictures, and details such as French polished wood, hand-upholstered leather and aluminium seats and energy efficient climate control promise stylish comfort for the contemporary concert goer. The original brutalist concrete structures have been fully restored and the foyer area (previously rather grim despite attempts at funky lighting) has been revitalised with plenty of natural light  and better views of the Thames

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The Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room open with a programme of events paying tribute to the historic legacy of the venues, and the legendary artists who have performed there over the past fifty years. A dynamic blend of contemporary and classical work sees vibrant performances, events, installations and a free programme of activities for all ages. The reopening programme runs from Monday 9 April until the end of May 2018. Further details here

Francesco-032 by Marie Staggat

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

There has always been a piano at my house, perhaps a strategic move by my mother. Soon I found myself curious about which sounds I could trigger out of the instrument. Then I realized the piano is itself a world.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Growing up I found the most inspiration in three musicians of the twentieth century: Paco de Lucia, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Joe Zawinul. And the discovery of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Not to repeat myself, not to fall into a routine.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Pride is not a feeling I measure I measure my achievements with. Perhaps my album ‘Idioynkrasia’ (inFine, 2011) is my most personal, and ‘Piano Circle Songs’ (Sony, 2017) the most challenging.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

When I was 5 years old, I said to my piano teacher: “I only want to play the music of Bach, and my own music” She thought I was a cute little boy, and taught me how to play the piano.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

The complete works for keyboard of J S Bach is a project for a lifetime, not necessarily a season.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I like a variety of venues, and also alternating them. There are some fantastic concert halls in Japan for instance, really pristine acoustics. D-Edge, a club in Sao Paulo, Brazil, has a great sound system and vibe.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably a show at Jeita Grotto in Lebanon. Stalactites and stalagmites, plus a 7-second reverb.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be in line with what you do artistically. (Whether this works out commercially speaking is another question)

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Wake up, listen up, be yourself.

What is your present state of mind?

Aspiring serenity.

 

 

Francesco Tristiano’s ‘Piano Circle Songs’ is released on the Sony label. Francesco performs music from his new album, with Canadian pianist and songwriter Chilly Gonzales with whom the project was developed, at the Southbank Centre on 20 September 2017 – details here

Francesco Tristiano’s biography

 

Artist photo by Marie Staggat

Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert programme companions: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square which combined Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Op 34b with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

Read my full review here

 

(picture credit Neda Navaee)