Steven Osborne, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

No doubt those who had already heard Steven Osborne's much-praised recording on the Hyperion label of Olivier Messiaen's gigantic two-hour solo piano cycle 20 Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, approached the Wigmore Hall with high expectations.

No doubt those who had already heard Steven Osborne's much-praised recording on the Hyperion label of Olivier Messiaen's gigantic two-hour solo piano cycle 20 Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, approached the Wigmore Hall with high expectations. The event certainly drew a full and exceptionally attentive audience. Yet the cumulative effect of this live performance proved something else again.

Messiaen completed his "20 Peeps at the Infant Jesus", as one wag has called it, around the time of the liberation of Paris in 1944, and the relief and jubilation he must have felt seems to resound through the synoptic sweep of his conception. Maybe the joy had a more private source too, since the work was premiered in March 1945 by his favourite piano student, Yvonne Loriod - later to become his second wife, and a virtuoso renowned for the steely precision of her sound.

Well-prepared by the recording experience as he so evidently was, Osborne certainly had the precision - as delectably instanced in the Scarlatti-esque arabesques of nightingale, lark and blackbird figuration in the eighth movement, "Regard des Hauteurs", one of Messiaen's earliest pure birdsong studies. Yet Osborne's concept of piano sound could hardly be more different from that of Loriod.

Instead of the hard-edged clangour we all too often get in Messiaen performances, here was a range of dynamics and touch, an evenness of chording and subtlety of pedalling that saved even the pounding iterations of the 12th movement, "La Parole toute-puissante", from degenerating into a percussive jangle. As for the other end of Osborne's spectrum, the slow chords that inaugurate the cycle, and which Messiaen labelled the "theme of God", seemed to bloom in the silence - a perfect emulation of Debussy's pianistic ideal of resonance without attack.

20 Regards is notably eclectic in style, even by Messiaen's standards - some would say, embarrassingly so, in regard to its over-the-top Romantic rhetoric and traces of 1940s light music. Nor was continuity helped on this occasion by an occasionally at-sea page-turner and an unscheduled interval after the tenth "Regard". It was all the more tribute to Osborne's command of stylistic interplay and overall pacing that he nonetheless clinched the whole cycle so overwhelmingly in its final pair of pieces.

In the 19th movement, "Je dors, mais mon coeur veille", laying the cycle's tenderer episodes to rest, Osborne did indeed seem to wind down to one of those elusive timeless moments. By contrast "Regard de l'Eglise d'Amour", which resolves all the more volatile musics of the cycle into a paean of F sharp major, culminated in a tempo so stately that at any moment the sound could have died, the intensity lost. Yet Osborne sustained it magisterially to the end. This was a truly revelatory evening.

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