Christopher Taylor’s holy, brainy Messiaen
Christopher Taylor's shows total command of Messiaen's monumental "Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus."
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:
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?
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.