A Pianist's Emphatic Devotional

Christopher Taylor played two hours of Messiaen at the Library of Congress on Saturday.
Christopher Taylor played two hours of Messiaen at the Library of Congress on Saturday. (University Of California, Davis)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

Someone once likened the music of Olivier Messiaen to an over-the-top display of suburban Christmas lights. It's bright and spangly, and in its own way a very personal, slightly mad act of devotion.

My somewhat tamer analogy for "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus" -- Messiaen's two-hour solo piano work, which the pianist Christopher Taylor brought for a second time to Washington at the Library of Congress on Saturday night -- is Giotto's famous Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Both works offer a sequence of illustrative religious vignettes, bathed in a childlike innocence, and expressed in clear terms so even the least literate viewer can understand. Even Messiaen's colors are like Giotto's: the vivid reds and blues, the layers of gold leaf.

That's a lot of analogy; but "Vingt Regards" is a lot of music. Taylor has made it into something of a calling card, matching Messiaen's feat of composition with an equally prodigious feat of memory by playing it all by heart. The piece is a workout. When he took a bow at intermission, inserted after the first 10 of the 20 segments, he looked like an athlete after Round 1 of a particularly tough match, the knees of his pants splotched with perspiration where his hands had rested on them.

Indeed, Taylor gave Messiaen's often ascetic music an emphatically, even oddly physical stamp. The default mode of "Vingt Regards" is radiant devotion. The piece opens with climbing three-part sets of chords (Regard du Père) shimmering and turning in space; Messiaen often builds a segment by putting a phrase out there and working it, kneading it, meditating on it, chewing it over. At the start, Taylor delineated each individual segment very specifically. A first catharsis came with the ferocious activity of Part VI, "Par Lui tout a été fait" (Everything was made by Him), in which the effort of the act of making was reflected in a sense of force as Taylor's body spasmed and tore music out of the hard keyboard.

In Taylor's reading, however, this physicality gradually eclipsed the radiance; religious devotion was principally expressed in terms of ecstatic frenzy. Taylor's touch is hard; he pounded on the keyboard, pulling from it, particularly in the high notes, now the metallic sounds of wind chimes, now a dull shrillness like shards of glass (the instrument appears to be at the brittler end of Steinway's sonic spectrum) while his left leg unconsciously thwacked the floor. The performance was a remarkable thing to watch; it certainly tore Messiaen out of what can be a cocoon of safe religious distance. Beatific calm is all very well, but Taylor's point seemed to be all about vital force: This music, this devotion, mattered to the composer, and Taylor made sure that it mattered to his listeners as well.

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