A different Christmas concert with Zucker tackling Messiaen’s visionary “Vingt Regards”

Sat Dec 14, 2019 at 1:49 pm
Gabriel Zucker performed Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus Friday night at Spectrum.

For those who don’t like the sentimentality of popular music in this Christmas season, there is always Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Child Jesus). 

Messiaen, a devout Catholic, viewed the Incarnation, God made flesh, as the most disruptive event in human history. Pianist Gabriel Zucker, performing the enormous solo work at Spectrum in Brooklyn Friday night, made that abundantly clear, as galactic calm alternated with explosive energy, transporting the listener light-years away from Mary-and-Joseph, ox-and-ass domesticity.

One couldn’t help being aware of the immense demands that a continuous performance of this virtuoso work, with only brief pauses between the twenty movements, put on the pianist’s concentration and stamina. Most of the time, however, the composer’s endless ingenuity, sensuality and passion, vividly realized by Zucker, completely captured one’s attention.

The piece’s two-hour duration hardly mattered. To borrow another Messiaen title, this was a performance “for the end of time.”

Along the way, one heard echoes of Messiaen’s illustrious predecessors, particularly the diabolical energy of Liszt and the sensuous chords of Debussy, with the occasional touch of Chopinesque filigree thrown in. Zucker’s playing recognized and exploited all these expressive streams.

He also shined light on Messiaen’s uniquely circular way of composing, turning the themes over and over, viewing them from all angles, sliding them against themselves in augmentation or upside-down or rhythmically altered. Each movement became an object of contemplation rather than a linear composition à la Beethoven.

“Contemplation,” the usual translation for Messiaen’s word regard, implies a serene state of mind, and much of this music, in fact most of it, sounded anything but serene. Regarder means literally “to look,” and one was tempted to borrow a title from Wallace Stevens and call this piece “Twenty Ways of Looking at the Child Jesus.”

Tender rotating figures evoked the meditative state of prayer in the fourth movement, “Contemplation of the Virgin,” while symbolism of three for the Trinity (so beloved by J.S. Bach) suffused the stately dance of the fifth movement, “Contemplation of the Son upon the Son”—that is, the Son-God looking at the Son-Child.

Here and elsewhere in the work, the three-ness of the music, sometimes notated by Messiaen on three staves instead of the usual two, projected clearly from Zucker’s piano as a singing melody over subtly voiced chords with ghostly accompaniment figures.

The sixth movement, “By Him everything was made,” was a shape-shifting fugue on a hammering subject that seemed to suggest either the clattering tumult of God’s workshop or the energy and diversity of his Creation.

In this way, movement followed movement, pausing to reflect or driving ahead—or seeming to do both almost at the same time—and further developing recognizable themes, with Zucker as the knowledgeable guide across the piece’s extended arc.

Although Zucker’s playing could have carried the evening by itself, it was enhanced on this occasion by Ron Shalom’s lighting scheme, which washed the stage in colors that changed for each movement, and sometimes within movements. Light-bulb accents, glowing colored panels, and even a bit of starry firmament overhead came on at key moments in the music. Enigmatically, a low floor lamp behind the piano bench added an unexpectedly domestic touch to the closing movement, “Contemplation of the Church of love.”

No doubt inspired by Messiaen’s synesthesia—he described notes and chords as having specific colors—Zucker and Shalom created a lighting plan that generally favored (curiously) red for the more meditative movements and blue for episodes of fury and violence.

The main event, however, remained Zucker’s marathon performance.  Most listeners have known this awe-inspiring 20th-century work “through a glass darkly,” from recordings or excerpts.  (The thirteenth movement, “Noël,” with its clanging carillon and tender manger scene, is a recital favorite.)  But Friday it was “face to face.”

The Modern Piano Festival continues with pianist Augustus Arnone in a program titled “The Romantic (re)Generation,” 7 p.m. Saturday at Spectrum.

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