Jeremy Lee writes
Messiaen’s epic piano cycle, the two-hour long Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, is a set of contemplations and meditations on the birth of the baby Jesus and has been one of the most recorded piano cycles of modern days, with well-regarded performances by Yvonne Loriod, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Peter Serkin and Steven Osborne. Hakon Austbo’s Vingt Regards on Naxos hasn’t been given much publicity and as a result isn’t nearly as popular, but in one crucial aspect it equals—and in some cases, surpasses—our benchmarks.
As the title of the piece suggests, Vingt Regards stresses its spiritual, religious side much more than other secular piano pieces—in other words, you can’t play it as if it were a piano sonata or a set of variations on an operatic theme. Austbo’s slower tempi allow the music to breath and reflect, the thick textures to resonate, and he really lets the music’s haunting beauty speak for itself, and not his own technique or pianism. The result is just so soulful, and that soul and spirituality is what is lacking in so many other recordings such as Béroff and, in particular, Osborne’s highly-regarded cycle. Osborne’s reading lacks that all-important aspect; technically it is brilliant, with hair-raising speed and precision, but as an interpretation, as a musical medium of conveying Messiaen’s devout religion—it leaves me cold. With Osborne it sounds as if everything is forced, everything calculated beforehand; with Austbo, it is the emotion that propels him and the music forward. He shapes the lines with delicacy and feel, coaxes the repeated chords (such as those in the 6th Regard “Par Lui tout a été fait”) and birdsong and pushing them organically to their destination; every chord and note pregnant with deepest feeling and fervor, and played as an inevitable, inexorable bridge to the next.
In some ways I can draw a parallel of this phenomenon to wine tasting: Osborne gulps the wine down like he was drinking orange juice, while Austbo really does swerve the wine about the glass tastefully, letting the alcohol brew and evaporate, allowing the sulphites in the wine to react with the air, and permitting the wine to “breathe”. Yes, Austbo really does let the soulful, religious facet of the piece respire, not only by means of the tempi, but also the delicate touch, the exquisite voicing, and the minute grading of the dynamics. However, these are only the pianistic descriptions of the aspect—Austbo’s faith is that intangible “something” that gives him the edge, that “something” only Messiaen can bring out from the pianist through his music.
Not that Austbo lacks technique, though. He clearly has a very excellent facility, tackling even the most notoriously difficult passages like it was nothing at all, but unlike most other pianists he doesn’t showcase his technique—instead, he unpretentiously puts it in the background, and uses it instead as a medium to accurately convey the composer’s intentions. What is heard is just the music and Messiaen’s devout religion.
Austbo’s Vingt, then, is a recording that you choose with your heart instead of your mind (of course others might find Osborne’s brainy yet emotionally devoid approach more satisfying). It is a one-of-the-kind model of great piano playing—not because of his own pianistic and technical ability, but the ability to resist the temptation of showing off, and instead dissecting through the essence of the work and discovering its true spirit. Sonically it is very good, although a bit resonant for some tastes, and the piano tone is very sweet. (Interestingly this was recorded in the same church Jack Gibbons recorded his Alkan Op. 39 set in.) My only quibble concerns the booklet notes, of which descriptions of the movements are just English translations of the (almost silly) purple patches Messiaen himself wrote prefacing each movement. Lastly, the fact that it’s released at budget price is an awesome bargain for such an intensely spiritual experience with great pianism at its very best. Another Naxos triumph and exactly what good Messiaen playing should be like. Bravo!
- Album name: Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
- Performers: Hakon Austbo (piano)
- Label: Naxos 8.550829-30
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 132:43