Jeremy Lee writes
I guess there’s no better way to celebrate Christmas than with music, and what piece in classical music portrays the nativity more explicitly than Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus! (Perhaps besides Schutz’s The Christmas Story, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Messiah, Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, Liszt’s Christus…oh, whatever.) Anyway, recently I have gotten hold of a copy of the well-Regarded (excuse the pun) Peter Serkin performance on RCA, and I shan’t beat around the bush. I Regard it as one of the most satisfying Regards besides Austbo’s and Loriod’s.
One of the reasons is that it’s uniquely dynamic and exciting. Recorded when the pianist was only 25, the youthfulness of his approach shows in a dazzling display of his virtuoso technique and fresh musical sense. Take No. 10 (Regard de l’esprit de joie) as an example: at 8 minutes dead, it’s possibly the fastest version around, but the point is not really about the speed; rather, it’s the tangible sense of ecstatic joy that Serkin expresses that is most enthralling. Observe how he launches so vehemently into the Thème de danse orientale et plain chantesque during its recapitulation, or the way he accelerates downwards to the final chord, like an acrobatic diver flipping his body spectacularly in the air before entering the water with a splendid “thunk”: I don’t think it has ever been matched. What is more, his melodic sense throughout (how well he projects the Thème de Dieu in the middle section and shapes the two Thème de Joie sections so emphatically) highlights the huge arch that connects this movement’s tightly-argued structure. No. 6 (Par Lui tout a été fait) is taken slower than many versions, but perhaps in compensation for sheer speedy thrills, Serkin bothers to shape those repetitious patterns of octaves and chords so that it sounds not only palatable, but positively magnetic. No. 18 (Regard de l’onction terrible) has never sounded as terrifying as it does here, and the tricky contrapuntal filigree in the middle of No. 16 (Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages)–and at such breakneck speed too!–emerges with supreme clarity, as if it were simultaneously played by two people.
This overtly virtuosic approach, however, does not imply stiff slow movements. In fact, Serkin offers pretty much sensitivity and spirituality in the more reflective sections: consider the suavely shaded No. 5 (Regard du Fils sur le fils), with its sweetly dissonant chord clusters in canon (Serkin, like Ogdon, can’t resist showing histheir digital dexterity in the birdsong, which is all to the good), or the hypnotic, reverent No. 1 (Regard du Père). Of course, in terms of soul and spirit Serkin cannot really match Austbo (Naxos) or Hill (Unicorn), but then again, they can’t match Serkin in terms of sheer peppiness, which Serkin offers in buckets.
The Regards encompass a wide emotional canvas, and to me a successful rendition is one that manages to embrace this whole picture. Serkin certainly is one, besides Loriod, and while listeners may have their personal preferences, I believe few would deny the veritable achievement of juxtaposition between seemingly contradictory facets (namely virtuosity and spirituality) that Serkin (and Loriod) manages to achieve in their performances. The 1973 recording is clear and only lacking in deep bass, and Michael Steinberg’s notes are quite interesting (he writes, “If I had to demonstrate to the man from Mars what a piano is and what you can do with it, I could not do better than to play this breathtaking recording of one of the twentieth century’s truly imposing masterpieces.”) So the only problem I have with this album is that it is unfortunately out of print. Fortunately, the second-hand CD store is always a haven of forgotten gems, and if you do find a copy while shopping this Christmas, snap it up and enjoy.
- Album name: Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
- Performers: Peter Serkin (piano)
- Label: RCA 82876 62316 2
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 122:31