A guide to Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus

It's one of the longest and most difficult pieces in the solo piano repertoire, but what make's Messiaen's 20 contemplations on the baby Jesus such a musical mountain?

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Written in 1944, Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus is not a piece to be tackled lightly.

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Although it seems surprising that, as recently as 2001, there were only eight complete versions available to buy, further acquaintance with this 20th-century classic explains the scarcity.

This must be one of the most challenging pieces in the entire repertoire.

Vingt regards is a cycle of 20 movements, all based on the idea of contemplations upon the infant Jesus.

Familiar figures from the nativity take their turns to gaze upon the child, and there are also contemplations from more abstract sources such as silence, time and the spirit of joy.

The movements add up to more than two hours of listening, and one of the challenges for the player is to maintain their concentration and our interest for that length of time.

Not to mention the technical demands! Four-square rhythms are for the most part brushed aside to make way for Messiaen’s trademark ‘additive’ rhythms: chains of different note-lengths which don’t arrange themselves into a regular pulse.

Tonality is never far away, but there are few guiding key signatures, just dense fistfuls of sharps, flats and naturals organised in a style that’s both decorative and highly athletic.

Three Great Recordings

Martin Helmchen (piano)
Alpha Classics ALPHA243

Michel Béroff (piano)
Warner Classics 4769152

Yvonne Loriod (piano)
Decca 481 7942

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Original text by Sarah Walker