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


Live Music

English: Portrait painting of John Henry Newman

English: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berli...

English: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) in Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner Deutsch: Sir Simon Rattle dirigiert die Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO) in Das Rheingold von Richard Wagner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As someone with a significant CD collection (and even a few downloads to show that modernity does not pass me by) who has got, and still gets huge pleasure from them, I am finding that almost every “Live” concert I go to is giving as much – or often greater – pleasure than most CDs. The revelation to me has been that even if the performance has not been particularly good or inspiring, I still get things out of the concert that one doesn’t get from listening to a CD.

A Live Concert forces you to concentrate. The performance or balance or audience, even if sub-optimal, forces you to engage your mind and emotions. When a performance is particularly good, because you are catching it on the wing, there is something magical or awe inspiring about it. I have just come back from the St Endellion Easter Festival. Hearing the Endellion quartet live – despite being, I felt slightly below par – was a treat. Gerontius, with a mixture of amateurs and professionals, despite a couple of the soloists clearly fighting the flu, did not diminish the visceral thrill of hearing Elgar’s masterpiece in the flesh. Before going on holiday I went to a not-very-good piano recital in London. Although underwhelmed, it made me think more about the music being played, why I wasn’t impressed, and what would constitute in my view a very good performance.

I put “Live” in inverted commas for a purpose. I have discovered the Berlin Philharmonic’s app (downloadable for free from iTunes). It gives access to most of their recent concerts, as well as the ability to listen to future ones. The subscription is £7.49 for 7 days, or around £25 for a month. During the subscription you can listen to as much as you want. There is a free concert – Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven 4 and Mahler 1 – which is excellent. The quality of the performance (and sound) convinced me that this is a real winner. I listened via a reasonably fast wifi connection, in HD video, on an iPad, with a pair of good quality Bose headphones. The video production is excellent, picture quality is superb, and the sound is more than acceptable. I have signed up for a week, and so far have “attended” an Abbado concert of Berg and Schumann, and a Thielemann/Pollini concert of Schumann, Mozart and Liszt. Because the video is in front of you on the iPad you concentrate on the music. My conclusions so far: the orchestra are very good indeed; Rattle is in the form of his life; Abbado’s conducting look shambolic but there is magic in the way he rehearses because the results are spectacular (as he showed in London 18 months ago); Thielemann gets high marks for programming 3 Liszt Symphonic poems, but I don’t think he is all that inspiring, and Pollini has never shined in the Mozart concerti.

What the Berlin Phil are doing may be part of the future for orchestras, as they seek to find extra income and new audiences, in the way the opera houses are now making performances available in cinemas. Do try the free concert.