Classical CD Reviews

MESSIAEN: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: Selections – Evan Hirsch, piano – MSR Classics

An excellent performance of selections from Messiaen’s masterpiece. Even if you have Vingt regards complete on disc, you may want to consider this fine rendition.

Published on April 5, 2013

MESSIAEN: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, Selections: XV, XIV, IV, I, X, XI, XIX  – Evan Hirsch, piano – MSR Classics MS 1433 [Distr. by Albany], 58:41 ****:

Sorry if what I’m about to say is contrarian, but I find that Messiaen’s musical idiom does not translate well to the organ. That’s an unusual position to take given that the organ was Messiaen’s primary instrument: he held the position of organist at Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité from 1931 until his death in 1992. However, it can be said that unlike his mentor Marcel Dupré, Messiaen did not write a great deal of organ music. In fact, works for organ are few among his published compositions.

Whatever the case, for me Messiaen’s organ pieces seem to oscillate between the lugubrious and the histrionic, lacking the exciting coloristic effects for which his orchestral music is celebrated. However, the piano works—a number of which he wrote for his one-time student and second wife Yvonne Loriod (including Vingt regards in 1944)—strike me as far more successful in capturing this sense of color. They’re also more successful in capturing other telling characteristics of Messiaen’s art, which include the incorporation of elements of older music such as plainchant and of Eastern music, the imitation of birdsong, and the celebration of his own special brand of Christian spirituality, which pianist Evan Hirsch calls “a thing of intense human passion: His scores are populated with indications such as rapturous, ecstatic, vehement and the depictions range from kisses and passionate embraces to pagan drumming and wild dances.”

As Hirsch also mentions, Messiaen has often been described as a mystic. But Messiaen was no anchorite, no would-be theologian or philosopher; the notes that he provides at the head of each of the Vingt regards detail the color and passion that he wishes performers to create and audiences to hear in his twenty musical vignettes portraying the happenings in the life of the baby Jesus. Hirsch’s translation of the text accompanying the tenth in the series, Regard de l’Esprit de joie, provides a good example of this:

“Vehement dance, drunken sound of horns, transport of the Holy Spirit—the joy of the blissful love of God in the soul of Jesus Christ. . . .
“Extremely low Oriental dance, in unequal neumes, like plainchant. 1st development of the Theme of Joy. Asymmetric Augmentation. A sort of hunting song in 3 variations. . . . 2nd development of the Theme of Joy, and Theme of God. Reprise of the Oriental dance, extremely high and low at the same time. Coda with the Theme of Joy.”

Vingt regards has received a number of outstanding recordings over the years, and there are well-regarded versions available from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Michel Béroff, John Ogdon, Steven Osborne, Peter Serkin (if you can find it), as well as dedicatee Yvonne Loriod. That being the case, Evan Hirsch’s decision to record excerpts from the work may be paddling against the current, but as Hirsch notes, the twenty pieces can pretty much stand on their own because “unlike Schumann’s Kreisleriana or Chopin’s Preludes, there isn’t an overriding harmonic plan, which would require all parts to be in place in order to make sense.” This might be debatable, but I think the quality of Hirsch’s performance isn’t subject to debate. Much of this music is wildly virtuosic, as it needs to be to convey “scintillation, poundings, powerful sound of huge trombones” and all of Messiaen’s other colorful conceits. Hirsch’s performance is certainly virtuosic. But the pianist is also moved by the more intimate music on offer here: XV, Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus (“The Kiss of the Baby Jesus”) and IV, Regard de la Vierge (“Regard of the Virgin”).

I became aware of Evan Hirsch’s artistry from his excellent survey of George Rochberg’s piano music on Naxos; I find his approach to the music of Messiaen just as satisfying. And the MSR engineers have managed to capture big, imposing piano sound at Spaulding Auditorium of Dartmouth College, where Hirsch served as visiting professor.

The question is whether excerpts of Messiaen’s masterpiece will suffice. For some listeners the answer is yes, though more serious music lovers will certainly want a complete version of Vingt regards. Yet this selection and performance are nonetheless special, providing insight into the interpretive choices and skills of a very fine pianist. I’m pretty sure this CD will often figure into my listening when I want to hear Messiaen on piano.

—Lee Passarella

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