First published in The Herald on 22 September, 2014
After all the tensions of past days and weeks, what a balsam this was. Olivier Messiaen’s monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus is a two-and-a-half-hour outpouring of ardour, hope and kaleidoscopic imagination. Written in occupied Paris in 1944 for the woman who later became his second wife, it is the composer’s best-known piano work – and yet few pianists can fully encompass its vast architecture, intense colours and astounding expressive range.
Today there is no greater interpreter of Vingt regard than Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. He has been playing it for nearly 20 years and recorded it (brilliantly) in 2002. This performance at the Lammermuir Festival was a profound musical experience, crafted in a single arch but given ample room to breathe. Sun streamed through the windows of North Berwick’s simple, airy Abbey Church and gulls screeched in the background. As Osborne began to play a large black butterfly flitted across the stage.
Messiaen gives his performers a huge amount of information, from what colour palette or bird call to conjure down to what finger to use on a particular note. Yet Osborne’s personal touch is unmistakable. In calm movements he captures an extraordinary stillness; in agitated movements he is muscular, forthright and passionate. There’s an honesty to his playing that doesn’t attempt to mask the fearsome technical challenges of this work, but he achieves an overview, too, never bogged down in the dense writing. And although Messiaen isn’t often associated with humour, there was undeniable wit in Osborne’s fifteenth Regard, a sultry lullaby full of pastiche and flourish. Scottish classical audiences rarely give standing ovations; here it was inevitable.