Messiaen, My Father and Steven Osborne

Cover of "Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesu...

Cover of Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus

English: French composer Olivier Messiaen (190...

English: French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Father thought Olivier Messiaen was a greater composer than Mozart. I therefore heard more of Messiaen’s music in my first 15 years of life, than I did of Mozart’s. I went to the first performance of his Neuf Meditations Sur La Mystere de la Sainte Trinite at the Festival Hall, played by Gillian Weir – from a handwritten score. As a consequence I hated Messiaen – and his music – for a long time. My Father died in April 1982. I was living in Singapore so flew home for his funeral. On the day of my Father’s funeral – May 1st, Messiaen’s obituary appeared (I think) in the Daily Telegraph. He had died on April 27th, three days after my Father. He would have thought this totally appropriate and would have loved the coincidence.

As I got older I got more interested in Messiaen’s music. I’m not a total devotee, but I do think much of it is marvelous. 2008 was the centenary of Messiaen’s birth. Over the course of that year I heard three pianists play what I think is his undoubted masterpiece – his Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus. (How does one translate this – surely not “Twenty Looks…” it must be Twenty “Impressions” or “Contemplations”… ?). They were Joanna McGregor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Steven Osborne. It is 177 pages of what is – for much of it – fiendishly difficult piano writing, with some heart breaking quieter, slower bits. It lasts around two and a quarter hours. All pianists play with the music, and Osborne does it without an interval. I’m still somewhat in the Johnsonian mode of amazement that anyone would actually dare to play it live, without really attempting to critique their performances. All seemed to me to play it superbly.

Steven Osborne has been taking the piece round the country again this year. Three weeks ago he was at the Chipping Camden Festival. This week he performed it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of The Rest is Noise series. It was sensational. I attach a link to Andrew Clements’ review in the Guardian which summarises the piece and performance perfectly. I am only sorry I couldn’t have taken my Father to hear it.

I heard Osborne first 5 or 6 years ago. He and Paul Lewis are the leading British pianists of their generation (they play duets together), with established international reputations. However, keeping an eye on the reviews over recent years as well as having bought a number of his CDs recently – the Britten Cello Sonata with Alban Gerhard, Stravinsky’s works for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Ravel, Debussy, Liszt, Messiaen, Alkan and more -Osborne has become one of the finest pianists of his generation. I would strongly recommend getting hold of his CDs or better still – go and hear him live. He also writes a very interesting, occasional blog – Continue reading