Steven Osborne plays Messiaen

The British pianist's Bath Festival residency comes to an impressive conclusion

Steven Osborne plays Messiaen
Steven Osborne

Rich, heady incense and flickering candlelight filled the church of St Mary, Bathwick. Not for a service of worship but for an unforgettable performance of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus by Steven Osborne, who once again proved himself to be a pianist of formidable stamina, emotional depth and textural clarity.

At two and a quarter hours long, Vingt regards is a tall order for pianist and audience alike – especially when there’s no interval and no give in the wooden pews. But there’s an unusual intensity that arises from concentration over such a long span of time, and – like a long-distance walker settling into their rhythm – a meditative ease soon sets in as the 20 contemplations unfold. Osborne created a special sense of devotional calm and stillness; his sound seemed to be unbelievably soft, softer and yet again softer – but always utterly clear. And when fury needed to be unleashed, Osborne gave his all.

Written during troubled times of deprivation, fear and uncertainty near the end of the Second World War – for Yvonne Loriod, the virtuoso pianist whom Messiaen would later marry – Vingt regards is a deeply spiritual work which contains suffering but also a joyous message of hope and love. Cool and cerebral Osborne might be, but he infused the Chopin-esque ‘Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus’ with heartwarming tenderness and made the penultimate ‘Je dors, mais mon Coeur veille’ disappear into a telling, ineffable silence. Without silence, there would be no music, he seemed to say. But it’s with the resplendent music of the ‘Regard de l’Eglise d’amour’ that Messiaen chose to end: 'After the shower of night, the spirals of anguish,' he said, 'here are bells, glory and the kiss of love.'

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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