The stage of North Berwick's Abbey Church was ideally set for music born of symmetry, juxtaposition and superimposition: foremost, Steven Osborne at the piano, his right towards us; behind, the symmetrical two-stair pulpit; then the organ; finally the centre of a stained glass trio through which the sun beamed - ideal for the flinty fabric of Messiaen's piano music. At Osborne's side sat James Waters, Lammermuir Festival Co-Artistic Director and last minute replacement page turner whose powers of attention were to be tested for the next 130 minutes, without interval.

Steven Osborne
Steven Osborne

Messiaen's 1944 Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus (Twenty meditations on the childhood of Jesus) opened with “Regard de Père” (Contemplation of the Father). The mood was calm and the dynamic generally quiet - at times extremely quiet; at times it seemed miraculous that Osborne's touch enabled him to reduce further the already quiet level. Attention to the very varied treatment of dynamics across all twenty movements was excellent. There were sudden changes from movement to movement such the following “Regard de l'étoile” (Contemplation of the star) which housed some very volatile changes. The third movement, “L'échange” (The Exchange) is a contemplation on “the mystery of the human incarnation of the divine”. It is really one long, gradual crescendo, here wonderfully paced, which met its reverse in the final chord which, through means of the sustain pedal, Osborne kept alive allowing us to enjoy the notes' dying interactions. The ultimate dynamic challenge lies in the 17th movement, “Regard du silence” (Contemplation of Silence), the dynamic equivalent of Messiaen's earlier portrayal of timelessness a ‘time art’ in Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Alongside expectedly quiet moments, there were crescendos and one suddenly loud moment, reminding us that silence's most noticeable moments come at its beginning and end. Whether playing the long dynamic game or turning on a sixpence, Osborne's communication of this element seemed completely intuitive, no doubt because he feels the dynamics to be in the music as opposed to post hoc decoration. It was almost as though he were drawing our attention to a wider take on crescendos and diminuendos: gradations of activity, of density, of pitch, of range and distance between the hands.

Throughout the work's massive duration there are many technical demands and, while it's clearly no cakewalk, Osborne never once seemed anything less than 100% secure. The intensely energetic explorations of the keyboard's full range were quite stunning and at one pint I noticed James Waters smile at what was unfolding beside him. Other technical skills, although perhaps less obvious, were no less impressive: in “Le baiser de l'Enfant-Jésus” (The Kiss of the Infant Jesus) deft pedalling swept away each phrase's overhanging notes to clear the airwaves for its successor; “Regard des hauteurs” (Contemplation of the Heights) featured the amazing and unlikely counterpoint of birdsong and brass-playing angels.

Two very contrasting movements were, for me, technical and expressive high points. The variations in “Le baiser de l'Enfant Jésus”, arguably the work's most straightforwardly tonal movement, featured some lovely filigree ornamentation which Osborne delivered with Chopinesque lightness. Perusing the pews at one point during this oasis of calm, I was struck by the still life of heads: some bowed; others raised heavenwards; some tilted in canine-like attention. Many eyes were closed. The technical pièce de résistance came at the midpoint. “Regard de l'Esprit de joie” (Contemplation of the Joyful Spirit) was a riot of wellbeing and pianistic technique. Across its eight-and-a-half minutes I was variously reminded, in the more dynamic moments, of Errol Garner, Ginastera and Bartók. In Messiaen's own words, (included in Co-Artistic Director Hugh MacDonald's erudite notes) the term ‘spiritual intoxication’ appears. There was certainly uninhibited ebullience in Osborne's rendition here. Messiaen's love of contrast through juxtaposition was on joyous display here. Osborne's bright attack really enhanced the central section's seven-note phrases which rang out like the most ostentatious gamelan. As though to punctuate the work, there was a twenty second pause at the movement's jocular conclusion.

This pause allowed our ears to adjust in time for the portrayal of, in Messiaen's words, “stalactites in oracular grottos”. The bright colour conjured here really suggested their crystalline appearance.

Messiaen's world of rhythm really requires a thesis to begin to describe it and so suffice it to say here that Osborne's ability to detect, articulate and project syncopations in essentially unmetered music, and to such energetic effect, was both invigorating and impressive.

Although bathed in direct sunlight for two hours, Osborne emerged from this miraculous feat of physical, intellectual and emotional stamina as though blinking into the sunlight. A standing ovation greeted him; he looked humble and quietly happy.

*****