OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 1 = Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (20 Gazes on the Infant Jesus) – Markus Bellheim, piano – Neos multichannel SACD 10907/08, (2 discs) 71:26; 71:09 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:
This monumental piano work, running over two hours, is one of the great monuments of solo piano music of the 20th century, and probably one of Messiaen’s best works. It is created from a totally unconventional approach to music as part of the mystical Catholic vision of the composer, and uses everything in his catalog of various often-eccentric tools of composition: including bird song, register extremes, clusters of notes, polytonality, unusual rhythms, limited transposition, and often startling contrasts of volume or harmonies. It can be listened to as a meditative, inspirational spiritual experience, following the detailed descriptions (in the note booklet) written by Messiaen about what he is portraying in each of the 20 Regards. Or ignoring the Catholic elements, it can be appreciated as a wild and exuberant musical expression of the greatest ecstatic state – in a way similar to the state explored by Scriabin in his later works.
Messiaen’s approach to tonality is completely different from other composers, and even his multi-tonal explosions of piano sounds seem more thrilling and less annoying than similar atonal bursts in the music of others. He seems to come up with fresh-sounding, exciting passages that move with alacrity between tranquil, worshipful moments and blasts of dizzying sound explosions. I find No. X – Gaze of the Spirit of Joy – to be one my favorites. Messiaen writes of this one: “A furious dance, a drunken horn sound, transmission of the Holy Spirit…” He also refers to “an intoxication in the craziest sense of the world.” Yah! That’s the spirit!
This is the first volume of the complete solo piano works featuring German pianist Bellheim, and its super quality in every way points to the greatest excitement over anticipation of the rest of Messiaen’s huge catalog of piano works. Bellheim fits perfectly with the balanced but giant contrasts found in the music. He can handle the tranquil meditative portions with great beauty but then he can run riot on the more abandoned passages and climaxes. Although he plays with the greatest intensity he sounds note-perfect to me – though how am I to tell – even with a typical Messiaen score? His spectacular performances wouldn’t shine so brilliantly if it weren’t for the brilliant hi-res surround provided by Neos’ engineers in the multichannel SACD mode. The piano sounds very large and resonant, but not 30 feet wide like many piano recordings. Highly recommended! My standard for the Vingt Regards was previously Steven Osborne’s complete set on Hyperion CDs, but though well-recorded by Tony Faulkner, the sonics sound opaque and dulled next to this crystalline SACD, and Osborne’s performances also lack the fire of Bellheim’s.
— John Sunier