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An Early Start on Christmas

Messiaen, Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard

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Yvonne Loriod
Someone should start a new Christmas tradition by sponsoring an annual performance of Olivier Messiaen's vast piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, instead of Handel's Messiah. Tickets would not be easy to sell, most likely, but at least it is a work that is really and exclusively about the birth of Jesus, with some formidable theological thought behind it. It would probably take me at least ten years of annual hearings to tire of it. The chance to hear the whole thing live in concert is rare enough, but Christopher Taylor compounded the achievement of doing so by playing the entire cycle from memory on Saturday night at the Library of Congress. One can only imagine the sorts of visions that knowing this music in such intimate detail might produce.

Vingt regards is notoriously difficult to play, often described as Messiaen's exploration of the technical limits of the piano and pianists, through the intermediary of his student, later second wife, Yvonne Loriod. Taylor's rendition offered dynamic, bravura playing, a daring close-to-the-edge approach that paid off major dividends in the loud, toccata-like sections -- the thunderous bass of La Parole toute puissante (no. 12); the bell-like Noël (no. 14); the wild ecstasy of the prophets, shepherds, and mages (no. 16); the expressionistic Regard de l'Onction terrible (no. 18). The exultant sixth movement, Par Lui tout a été fait, brought to mind the etymological background of the word exult, to leap with joy, David dancing before the Ark. There was intense, fizzy, jazz-inspired joy to many sections, especially the Regard de l'Esprit de joie (no. 10), an ecstatic boogie-woogie that is harmonically not that far from the world of Duke Ellington. In other places, there was a harshness in Taylor's touch that did not always please: while the Father's look (no. 1) was tender and loving, the star's look (no. 2) was at times raucous, at others a little square and methodical.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A Pianist's Emphatic Devotional (Washington Post, October 27)

Andrew Patner, A movable pianistic feast with Pollini, Taylor and Hill (Chicago Sun-Times, October 14)

Alan Artner, Ecstasy, abandon accent Christopher Taylor's 'Jesus' (Chicago Tribune, October 13)
Taylor may have had trouble concentrating after the fourth movement, where the repetitive nursery rhyme-like music mixed unhappily with the first of many cell phone interruptions. The fifth movement, Regard du Fils sur le Fils, had pleasingly avian warbling, based on some of the birdsongs cataloged by Messiaen, although there seemed to be a memory slip, quickly recovered, in the sixth movement. Somewhat distractingly, Taylor plays with disturbingly high blood pressure, an intensity of personal involvement that results in leg-raising antics, and vein-bursting, funny facial expressions. Affectation or no, it could be responsible for some of the playing being undernuanced. It was a good performance, with many striking moments, that did not quite add up to something great.

The Messiaen Centennial continues at the Library of Congress with a screening of Paul Festa's documentary Apparition of the Eternal Church on Friday (October 31, 7 pm) and a concert of the composer's music by soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Jacob Greenberg on Friday (November 1, 8 pm).

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