Tom Strini
Piano Arts

Christopher Taylor’s holy, brainy Messiaen

Christopher Taylor's shows total command of Messiaen's monumental "Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus."

By - Dec 8th, 2012 01:03 am

Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), “Adoration of the Infant Jesus,” Uffizi Gallery, Florence, tempera. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

A few words from the composer’s notes before we get into pianist Christopher Taylor’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus; first, Messiaen’s outline of the entire piece:

“Contemplation of the Infant-God of the manger and Gazes that fall on him: from the inexpressible Gaze of God the Father to the multiple Gaze of the Church of Love, passing through the extraordinary Gaze of the Spirit of Joy, through the very tender Gaze of the Virgin, the Angels, the Wise Men, and the incorporeal or symbolic creatures (Time, the Heights, Silence, the Star, and the Cross).

Pretty Catholic-mystic trippy, no? Now consider this, from his notes to the sixth of this set of 20 piano meditations on the Christ child:

“Note the divertissement where the upper voice treats the subject in a nonretrogradable rhythm taken out to the left and right, where the bass repeats fortissimo a fragment of the subject in asymmetrical enlargement.”

Pretty chilly theory-nerd grad student, no?

Christopher TaylorAC2

Pianist Christopher Taylor.

Both sides of Messiaen’s brain meshed in this 1943-44 composition, and he makes both sides of your brain mesh when you hear it. It takes you to a holy meditative plane even as its formal unfolding, rhythmic tricks, and crafty structural use of bits of melody fascinate. To hear Taylor play it Friday evening, under auspices of PianoArts  and in the piano-perfect acoustical environment of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was to be transfixed.

Each of the 20 segments, which range from four to perhaps 10 minutes within more than two hours overall, possesses a distinct personality. Messiaen was not shy about describing them in his notes. On No. 10: “Vehement dance, drunken sound of horns, rapture of the Holy Spirit…” On No. 8: “…the heights descend to the manger like the song of a lark… Songs of birds: nightingale, thrush, warbler, chaffinch…” On No. 12: “Monody with low percussion… On No. 11: “Weighty pulsations represent the heartbeats of the Infant in the breast of his mother…”

The violence and serenity such words suggest arrive on cue, in gossamer arpeggios and exotic scales and driving, percussive clusters. But each of the movements springs a surprise against its prevailing mood. These pieces are not one thing only; all are emotionally as well as musically complex. Like people.

A handful of germinal ideas permeate this piece and recur in countless, often fantastical, guises. These recurring themes make all 20 parts cohere as a whole. Unique versions of these ideas give distinct character to each movement.

These crucial elements often occur amid thickets of atonal counterpoint. All Christopher Taylor managed to do was make them not only utterly clear but also unmistakably distinct. So much of this music is gestural, and Taylor without fail made those gestures full and distinct in their shape and impetus. The force of the thought and feeling behind them drove away listening fatigue before it could set in. He brought his A-game to every phrase, and every phrase demanded and rewarded attention.

Taylor did that with music that very few pianists take on because of its massive challenges to technique and stamina. Really — Vingt Regards makes Rachmaninoff’s Third look like “Chopsticks.” Just getting through it is a monumental achievement. Incredibly, Taylor played it from memory. While you could see and feel the effort involved, Taylor never struggled. He approached Vingt Regards from a commanding height and didn’t need us to root for him. That command and Taylor’s passion and intelligence allowed us to forget about the player and fully enter Messiaen’s beguiling, overwhelming sound world.

So much is going on in Milwaukee this weekend. Find out all about it in Danielle McClune’s link-rich On Stage for this week.

And more TCD reviews coming this weekend: Strini on the Milwaukee Ballet Nutcracker, Michael Barndt on the Boston Camerata, David Bohn on the Bel Canto Chorus.

0 thoughts on “Piano Arts: Christopher Taylor’s holy, brainy Messiaen”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This was one of the most memorable musical evenings I’ve ever experienced. Thank you for capturing it so beautifully, Tom.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would like to thank Sue Medford for arranging this life-altering event. I followed every phase of every section with the assistance of blow-by-blow program notes, signed by distinguished musicologist Jane Jaffe which I obtained from the Piano Arts website, and also attended the important lecture the evening before by Timothy Benson, the resident church organist and choir director at St Paul’s. Benson illustrated how the arrangement of notes in the “cross” theme are first lateral and then vertical in direction, and I further observed this as as being drawn on the piano rather than preexisting as a cross shape [which could have been done contrapuntally]. The above-mentioned extended liner notes clarify the main thrust of the entire work, and that is the somewhat radical assertion that the Doctrine is both positive and happy throughout eternity, and that the cross itself, although presented as being immense and imposing on the piano in the “star and the cross section”, is not morose. The details in every section of the 20 are programmatic to a greater degree than they are motivic due to the power given to these devices to have actions and transformations of their own. Dismissing any possibility of tarnishing the concept of earthly joy by attempting an harmonic approximation of it, Messiaen turns to a number of bird call sets, these being unrecognizable in the literal sense but clearly derived from “nature” in their derivations. The “God theme” harmonic clusters share some of the unexpected electrical imprints we find in certain philosophical counter-balances to harmonic purity which surprise the listener in sections of Franz Liszt’s music. I hesitate to call it “French” harmony, but rather an two-armed linkage of rhetorical hum and expressive monody. Taylor chose to ease in the God theme gradually in the very beginning of the first section, something which surprised me and which I forgot to ask him about after the concert. He may have rethought it as an approach, especially in view of references in genesis of God actually walking. This would then justify a virtual “approach” effect. During the first half of the concert, the church heater remained on and there was a recurring “clacking” sound produced from this which created for me a vision of **The** Church walking towards the assembly from somewhere in back on some huge, monstrous crutch–and this ambient noise was actually quite agreeable to me and fitted the piece, adding a new layer to it beyond merely piquant. I might almost consider the recommendation of incorporating it into future performances of this same work. In the second half, that heater was turned off to get rid of the noise, but the piano stayed in tune, I, however, noticed that it got cold in there. Nevertheless, the choice of venue was perfect. The external heights of the building begin to suggest on approach from the south an in-the-clouds surrealism which looms high over sundry pastel-lit amusements and lodgings near the structure.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The musical/ mathematical inventions employed in this work are a marvel to watch performed with such skill, but each element primarily serves the spiritual intent of the composer.

    Time is suspended – in the meditative pace of certain sections and in the incremental, controlled acceleration and deceleration of time and volume that infuse the music with organic life.

    In segments featuring birds, bells and lightning the music has no time signature but that drawn from nature. Random interjections by a clanging steam heat system in the church seemed to fit into the experience as the building had its say.

    The themes woven through the music carry extraordinary emotional power, especially as they are revisited in different guises. Meditations on God transform into powerful expressions of creation and a tender lullaby.

    And the whole fits a religious programmatic plan – with clear and fully realized chapters across the 20 sections.

    There are few musical works that can match this experience and fewer performers who can deliver it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    submits an apology for two proofreading flaws in the above. I would like to add that Mr. Taylor is going to New York next. Tell your friends, if you have any there.

  5. Anonymous says:

    would like to further add that when a pianist such as Taylor arrives at the state of being a medium through which the music is expressed, it would be entirely shallow and small-minded of me to declare that he is a great pianist who got it all down and played lots of hard notes. But only a great pianist can sustain the intense work it takes to get himself set up for a medium-like exchange like the one we saw, where the music supplies the power to the pianist the means to perform it rather than this being achieved by his own act of will.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Tom, for writing so insightfully about the experiences we had hearing Christopher Taylor’s performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards in Milwaukee last night. The music is complex, challenging, profound, and deeply moving. Before Mr. Taylor appeared before the audience, there was a hush. After the concert, someone said, “I thought this was supposed to be a long concert. It didn’t seem like 2 and 1/2 hours to me.” Your story and interview with Mr. Taylor on December 5 helped set the stage for this event. All of us who were at Christopher Taylor’s concert on the evening of December 7, 2012 will never forget it.

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