The MUSICON concert series was brought gloriously into 2024 by Rolf Hind’s interpretation of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944). This deeply theological and poignant work explores Messiaen’s spirituality through a series of twenty complex movements.
The setting was fitting: Durham Cathedral’s colossal scale and reverberant acoustics maximised the reflective nature of the piece – a shame the darkness of the hour didn’t allow us to enjoy building’s incredible stained-glass windows too, given the role of stained-glass iconography in Messiaen’s work. Nevertheless, Hind illuminated the room with majestic musical colour on the cold winter night, bringing out the essence of Messiaen’s synaesthesia and theology through his tactful and sensitive approach to the score, of which his copy was signed with a personal dedication by Messiaen himself.
Although I had arrived forty-five minutes early for the concert, having skated through icy Durham, the prime seats closest to Hind’s side of the piano were already taken by enthusiastic fans. Though I ended up seated on the opposite side, unable to see his hands, the sheer complexity of music through Hind’s virtuosity was immediately evident. He tackled the score’s infamously complicated sections and themes with immense ease and elegance, bringing out the colour of the three key themes (helpfully noted in the programme): the ‘Thème de Dieu’, ‘Thème de l’étoile et de la croix’, and ‘Thème d’accords’. These symbolize several interlinked theological ideas all related to and enhancing our consideration of the birth and death of Jesus, the key ideas in this piece.
To these themes Messiaen also adds music based on Greek meters, Indian rhythms, with diminutions and augmentations and birdsong-inspired rhythms to create a complex web of allusion and meaning, all ingeniously and clearly articulated in Hind’s vividly coloured performance. The contrasting thunderous fast sections and rapt slow movements created an ambience of anticipation and excitement; and it is worth mentioning the immense focus of his page-turner, the cathedral’s organ scholar, Hugh Clist-Woodward, of whose difficult task I was not envious!
Moments that particularly left a lasting impression on me were ‘Le basier de L’Enfant-Jésus’ (The kiss of the Infant Jesus) and ‘Regard de l’Église d’amour’ (Gaze of the Church of love). In the former, the fifteenth movement, the serene harmonic richness portraying the arrival of baby Jesus, was virtuosically emphasized by Hind’s sensitive use of dynamics. Contrastingly, in the final movement, ‘Regard de l’Église d’amour’, a juxtaposed effect was created through the utilization of extreme dynamics along with unsettling chromatic elements perhaps symbolizing the bells of the church, showcasing the diverse realms of Messiaen’s compositional creativity within this composition.
As a keen Messiaen fan and a student of Music Theology, I had high expectations but nonetheless I was astounded by the spiritual contemplation this piece imbued in the audience. Whilst discreetly looking around at others, I found many of them with eyes closed, captivated by Hind’s performance. For over two hours, Hind seemed to command the time of us hypnotized audience members, enthralling us into a musical trance. One of the ways this effect was created was through his subtle use of pedal and pauses. He indulged in these seemingly timeless pauses, capturing the essence of Messiaen’s concept of eternity and resurrection. This was further expressed in his emotional and passionate body language, which seemed reinforce and embody the expressive intentions in this remarkable and striking interpretation of one of Messiaen’s greatest works.
Olivia Hamilton, January 2024.
Olivia is a third-year music undergraduate at Durham University.
Rolf Hind played Olivier Messiaen’s, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus on Tuesday 16 January, 2024 for MUSICON at Durham Cathedral.