Can this be right? In his programme note Steven Osborne refers to Vingt Regards de l’enfant Jésus as “one of the longest self-contained works ever written for piano”. Self-contained? Surely it’s more a group of 20 interconnected shorter works, isn’t it?

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

If I’d ever thought of Messiaen’s masterpiece that way, I was thoroughly disabused by the Scottish pianist’s monumental account at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, also heard live on BBC Radio 3. In Osborne’s hands Vingt Regards was a single, colossal entity whose vaults and windows, transepts and side aisles all coalesced into an architectural whole. Not even the mid-cycle 10th Regard, a Gershwin-flecked pandemonium that uses I Got Rhythm as a place saver for the impending Turangalîla-Symphonie, was allowed to herald a pause in the order of things.

The performance, a thing of redoubtable authority and virtuosity, was a revelation. Given as part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, it was a tribute not just to Osborne’s technical and interpretational command but to his absolute powers of concentration across the work’s 130-minute span. Some in the audience did their best to put him off his stride but he was equal to their efforts right from the opening movement, the Regard du Père, whose hushed celestial gaze had to compete with the clunks of a heavy door, open-throated coughers and their slow-opening blister packs of medication, and even (or so it felt) the gentle roll of my pen on paper.

Messiaen’s language in this hypnotic and surprisingly accessible musical Everest is a blend of the numinous, the sentimental and the splashy. The first of these qualities infuses the ‘God’ theme, a recurring chordal theme of rapt tranquillity that reaches its zenith in the 15th Regard, the extended Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus; the last dominates the percussive No. 3 (L’Échange) and the pianola madness of No. 6 (Par Lui tout a été fait). Gentle or fierce, Osborne shrugged them all off with an élan that bordered on the effortless and regularly found hitherto unexpected sonorities as his traversal unfolded. His dynamic control during the rapid runs of No. 17, Regard du silence, for example, were as extraordinary as his near-silences in those God-theme moments. In both, the notes seemed to rise from the piano to his fingers rather than the other way round.

If the entirety of Vingt Regards is a cathedral in sound, its last five movements share the grandeur of an edifice nearing completion. Osborne treated No. 16, Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des mages, as a thronging caravan of moods and No. 18, Regard de l’onction terrible, as a vision of the Deity himself, then cleansed his palette with Messiaen’s unexpected sequence of diatonic chordal cascades in No. 19 (Je dors, mais mon coeur veille) before embarking on the magnificent 11-minute peroration that is No. 20, Regard de l’Église d’amour. Here, as throughout, the illusion of ease in his execution astounded as much as the music itself.

*****