First published in 2007 ‘The Rest Is Noise’ by Alex Ross, music critic of the ‘New Yorker’, charts twentieth century Western classical music from the dying embers of “fin de siecle” Europe and the years prior to the devastation of the First World War to the present day. In many ways, the book is less a history of classical music than a history of the twentieth century as told through its remarkable, often shocking and epoch-making music.

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It’s unusual to enter the auditorium of the QEH and see a small unassuming upright piano on the stage instead of the usual swaggering concert Steinway. In front of the piano, near the edge of the stage, flimsy sheets of  music were arranged on eight spindly stands. Overlooking the whole scene, a plaster bust of Beethoven, frowning down upon the proceedings.

A recital featuring the music of Hungarian composer and pedagogue George Kürtag is always going to be quirky, unusual and playful – and this concert was no exception.

Kurtag’s Hipartita for solo violin, a work composed for violinist Hiromi Kikuchi, who performed it at this concert. Combining the soloist’s name with the Baroque partita, a collection of pieces related to each other, the Hipartita contains movements dedicated to figures from Hungarian musical life, ancient Greece, Hungarian folk dances, including the Czardas, and even J S Bach himself. A curious work full of wails and squawks, skittish scurryings and glissandi, it was strangely haunting and witty all at once, and was presented with intense concentration and an aching beauty by Hiromi Kikuchi. At the end of the performance, Hiromi gestured into the audience, and after a pause György Kurtág himself, frail but smiling broadly, tottered onto the stage to receive applause alongside the soloist.

After the interval the piano had been shifted to centre stage, a duet bench set before it and another selection of flimsy pages on the music stand. Kurtág and his wife Márta walked slowly onto the stage, gently supporting one another. They were going to perform and selection of short pieces from Kurtág’s Játékok (Games), a series of works for children and beginner pianists, for which the model was Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. In Játékok, the focus is on movement and gestures rather than accuracy, thus drawing on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. These charming and idiosyncratic miniatures were interspersed with Kurtág’s own transcriptions of works by Bach, for four hands, and all played with great delicacy of tone and touch.

Here is the scene: Gyõrgy seated at the piano, Márta at his side quietly removing the pages, and joining him in duets of his own music and his Bach transcriptions, the practice pedal permanently depressed so that the sounds emerging from the piano are soft, gentle and intimate. Enhanced only slightly by amplification, the sound of the piano is domestic, homely. The Kurtágs lean towards one another as they play or mirror one another’s gestures, reaching across each other at the keyboard; sometimes they look tenderly at each other. It is as if we are peeping in on an afternoon of private music-making in their home.

This all-too brief yet exquisite and unassuming recital was met with a standing ovation, people rising to their feet not to applaud greatness but rather to share in the emotional spell this miniature music and its frail and deeply sensitive performers had cast upon us all. Many people were in tears, overcome with an emotion that was impossible to describe.

John Gilhooly took to the stage to present Maestro Kurtág with the RPS Gold Medal, in the presence of Beethoven (who himself was awarded the gold medal). In response to Gilhooly’s eulogy, Gyorgy Kurtág, as quietly-spoken as his music, said “I am not a man of words”, and then returned to the piano to play Mozart’s G major Variations with Márta.

An extraordinary and rare afternoon of music, curiously subversive by dint of the fact that it went against the grain of the traditional concert, and one many of us are unlikely to experience again.

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) surely ranks amongst the “greats” of the piano repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s WTC and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extraordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – 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.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant role in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or moments of hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawks, trills and shrills in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. 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 in full. It was British pianist Steven Osborne who stepped up to the challenge of performing this amazing work in full as part of the Soutbank Centre’s International Piano Series and year-long Rest Is Noise festival.

It was after hearing Steven Osborne’s account of Messiaen’s Trois Petite Liturgies that the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, invited him to study the larger piano works. Since then, Osborne has performed the epic Vingt Regards in public several times, and has also produced a highly acclaimed recording of it. His performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29th May 2013 was revelatory, not just in his ability to physically hold all the elements of the work together for two hours, displaying total technical and pianistic command, but also in his articulate and insightful approach to the music. The hushed chords and repeated right-hand octaves of the first Regard were almost whispered, before a clear bell sounded across the hall. Such meditative pianissimos contrasted with glittering effects high in the upper registers, richly-hued Debussyan harmonies, and deep, sonorous bass rumblings redolent of the sombre spirituality of late Liszt. It was a performance imbued with virtuosity, yet never at the expense of the music, nor quality of sound, and Osborne’s physical gestures always had meaning, emphasising a particular effect or intensely-felt emotion. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. Sitting in the back row of the hall, the sense of an audience engaged in an extraordinary shared experience was palpable in the absorption with which we listened. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had hard, and savoured the fading sounds in the hall, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a sustained standing ovation.

Olivier Messiaen in 1930

The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night’s chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

Read my full review here