For what is unquestionably one of the great landmarks in 20th-century piano music, Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus) has received relatively few outstanding recordings in the three-quarters of a century since its first performance, given by Yvonne Loriod, who would later become the composer’s second wife. Loriod’s own recording, made in 1956 under Messiaen’s supervision, has a unique authenticity, but of more recent versions the two that standout, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a former pupil of Loriod) and Steven Osborne, are both now more than 20 years old .
Perhaps the sheer scale and difficulty of the two-hour cycle has deterred some pianists from tackling Messiaen’s biggest single keyboard work (the Catalog d’Oiseaux is longer, but was assembled piecemeal over a number of years), but for Bertrand Chamayou the Vingt Regards has been part of his musical life since he was nine. He calls it “a colossal saga, an odyssey”. “What really shines through”, he says, “Is the triumph of evidence, a sense of beholding a certain truth.” That may be a valid way to approach Messiaen’s only explicitly religious piano work (though in a profound sense everything he composed was informed by his faith), but it is obviously not the only one; Aimard’s performance, for instance, relates the piano writing to the music of the post-1945 generation of composers, many of whom studied with Messiaen, while Osborne roots the cycle in the great romantic tradition running back through Liszt.
Chamayou’s performance falls somewhere in between those two, but it’s more personal, less objective than either. That doesn’t mean his playing ever becomes sentimental, but that for all its technical brilliance – and Chamayou has plenty – there is an element of real joy, almost ecstasy, about his approach to a movement such as the 10th, Regard de l’ Spirit of Joy, or the 20th and final Regard de l’Eglise d’Amour. Moments of more stark contemplation, as in No 6, By Him All Has Been Done, or No 18, Gaze of Terrible Anointing, are as fierce as they need to be, while the quieter beauties of the cycle, such as in the fifth, Gaze of the Son on the Son, or the penultimate I Sleep, But My Heart Wakes, are exquisitely colored.
Sometimes he can seem a little glib, lacking muscle beneath the brilliance, but Chamayou adds an interesting frame with short Messiaen tributes, including pieces by Takemitsu, Kurtág and Harvey. I’m not sure they are really needed, but are worthwhile nonetheless.