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The Mystery and the Glory

New York
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center
10/31/2017 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
Steven Osborne (Pianist)

S. Osborne (© stevenosborne.co.uk)

“Please note that no fingers or piano wires were harmed in tonight’s execution of ‘Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus’”
Sign which should have been hoisted after Steven Osborne’s performance.

While New York’s eight-million apostates, pagans and blasphemers paraded their Satanic rites on Walpurgisnacht under a full moon last night, a few hundred of Manhattan’s religieux gathered in a penthouse far above the ghastly rituals to hear what is perhaps the most holy, sacrosanct and sheerly impossible piano work of the 20th Century.

Olivier Messiaen was both master and acolyte of the great themes of humankind. The sounds of avian nature, the Indian Vedas, the sexual longings of Tristan and Isolde, the vivid complexity of music itself... Yet his creations were based on his adoration of Catholic spirituality. I have no idea how often he attended services, yet not a single work he ever wrote didn’t have the essence and ritual of the Church coming from every note.

And while half-dozen people walked out of the two-hour Twenty meditations on the Child Jesus, we (even those who were hardly devout by any means) were mesmerized by Steven Osborne’s performance. Even more, the music was a happiness, a joy which transcended (if not transubstantiated) the religion for which it was written.

Mind you, there were two serious flaws in this performance. First was the air-conditioning in the Kaplan Penthouse. It hardly needs saying that this work, this service, this blessing, must have silence above all. The piano is the Priest, and the offering is both flesh and blood. Other music might allow the distracting buzz of the machine, but to hear it with this work , it was almost an execration.

The other defect was far more serious. The vast majority of the audience, music-lovers all, listened to Mr. Osborne’s astonishing performance as abstract music. They may have suspected birdcalls and bells, trumpets and flutes. Their error (of Omission, not Commission) is that each of the twenty divisions had a title which not only illustrated but gave a tonal painting of the religious meditation for which it was written.

No, this was not a Richard Strauss tone-poem, not even La Mer. But these were indeed pictured contemplations.

Thus the lullaby in the third division was for “Contemplation of the Virgin.” Thus the bird song in the fifth division had to imply the “Contemplation of the Son on the Son”. And thus the glorious contrasts, the sometimes jazzy rhythms, the abrupt changes of mood, and above all, the majority of consonant chords all had their meanings within the 20 carefully written titles.

Olivier Messiaen was not a composer who could throw away notes, he never thought of a cadenza to show off a pianist’s skill. Every note, chord, transition, every avian or instrumental replication was written not for the glory of the pianist, but the glory of God.

Yet, if this information was missing from the audience last night, even Messiaen would have been overjoyed by Mr. Osborne’s powerful performance. Scholars would realize that–having studied with the composer’s pianist wife–Steven Osborne might have had as authentic a performance as possible. But even this was irrelevant for the ineffable impression.

It came, yes, from those amazing hands. In the Sixth division, “Through Him Everything was Made”, Messiaen did indeed make “everything”. To human pianists, it might be a nightmare. To Mr. Osborne, the unending fugues, backwards and forwards, the canons within canons, the clashing of chords, the silences leading into violences, the realization that every single note had come from one cell, was nothing. Barely moving his body, his hands crossed and uncrossed, his arms reached the ends of the keyboard.

The audience might have wondered why Mr. Osborne was playing quasi-jazz rhythms, counterpointed with Indian tabla meters with birdsong, with the piano becoming both vehement and percussive, the delicious cacophony overladen with Messiaen’s beloved singing of birds.

Had they memorized the titles, they would have seen that this was “Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy”, and the music was literally appropriate.

If Messiaen was a tone-painter, Mr. Osborne was the painter of softness and loudness. His pianopianissimos were almost unheard, his fortefortissimos shook the penthouse. I think particularly of the 14th division, “Contemplation of the Angels”. These were not Raphael angels, they were the angels of Michelangelo, and Osborne produced the fluttering of wings, trombones, the bass Tibetan trumpets–and even bird song.

Birds which, in Messiaen’s heaven soared up the stratosphere. (As we mortals know that our dogs will join us in the afterlife, Messiaen understood that birds would be eternal.)

But why go on? Those who could ignore that unholy air-conditioning (and it was possible) experienced two miraculous hours. Mr. Osborne himself was totally secure in his Papal array of colors, breaths, outcries, laughter (yes, the Eighth “Contemplation of the Heights” was filled with birds cackling, quarreling and flying away), and the delight of both Christmas and silence.

Steven Osborne conquered all those worlds, and when he modestly, without a scintilla of exhaustion, left the stage, it was apparent that he had, in his own way, performed a benediction and “Amen” upon his 88-key Via Gloriosa.

Harry Rolnick



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