Pierre-Laurent Aimard Plays a 1899 Bechstein in a Recital with a Strong Sense of Linkage


Liszt, Skryabin, Debussy, Julian Anderson, Nikolay Obukhov: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 11.3.2017. (GD)

LisztHarmonies poétiques et religieuses (first version)

Skryabin – Désir Op.57 No.1; Caresse dansée Op.57 No.2; Poème-Nocturne Op.61; Cinq Préludes Op.74

Debussy – Four Études

Julian Anderson – Sensation (London premiere)

Nikolay Obukhov – Création d’or; Invocation 1; Invocation 2; La Parabole du Seigneur; Révélation

This piano recital had a strong sense of linkage. Apart from the opening Liszt work, and the Julian Anderson premiere, all the works played came from the earlier years of the twentieth century, pre-war and entering into the years of the Great War. For a long time the works of Skryabin (especially the orchestral works) fell out of favour. His music was seen as decadent and outlandish; colour zooms; vast works designated to be played in the Himalayas! All shot through with over the top spiritual/occult ideologies and practices, including highly sensuous and erotic theatre and dancing, as tonight’s programme note writer has put it ‘an orgiastic synthesis of all the human senses’. It is true that this kind of pagan, quasi-redemptive, mysticism was fashionable in Russia at the time, but in the west any kind of enthusiasm was short lived. It seemed as though Skryabin was trying to outdo Wagner, who was a great influence, going far beyond the Bayreuth Master’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I can remember a broadcast interview with Adrian Boult where he claimed a refusal to conduct Skryabin.  But Skryabin’s piano compositions are a different matter. They are incredibly difficult to play.

In the West great pianists like Horowitz took up these works – with their bizarre titles – as a challenge to his virtuosity – needless to say they presented no real challenge for the great pianist. Similarly, Pierre-Laurent Aimard demonstrated a complete understanding and mastery in these strange works. Unlike Horowitz, Aimard didn’t so much put these works on ‘display’, he was more concerned with revealing the shades and constellations of tonally ambiguous ‘undecided’ harmonies, the sudden vacillating between minor and major, the flashes light as the aftermath of violently clashing cross-rhythms. I was greatly impressed with Aimard’s sense of contrast, like in the sudden semblance of the strange and seductive waltz, broaching a ‘pure’ C major, after the impulsive tonal turbulence of Désir and Caresse. Also I must mention the magical way (with minimum pedalling) in which Aimard closed Poème-Nocturne with a shift into sudden silence.

Debussy’s Études have been described as the ‘summation of a lifetime’s experience as a composer of piano music’. Like the Skryabin pieces they are fiendishly difficult to play. The composer, himself no mean player, confessed that some of the pieces were technically beyond him. In fact Debussy’s works are even more demanding for the pianists than the Skryabin works. explores some subtle harmonic shifts, especially in Pour les tierces No.2 (Book I) with its chains of thirds mostly in the right hand, which are not found in the Skryabin. No wonder Stravinsky was fascinated by these late piano masterpieces! Aimard is unique (in my experience) in capturing the subtle chiaroscuro shades of light, half-light, also some phrases floating in tonal, harmonic ambiguity, as in Pour les quartes No.4 (Book I). In Book II’s Pour les dégres chromatiques No.7, Aimard’s negotiation of the break-up of melody in the lower register with the rapid chromatic figures, would have to be heard to be believed, surpassing even excellent pianists like Mitsuko Uchida!

Julian Anderson’s Sensation (receiving its London premiere) complimented the other works in the programme, with its emphasis on pianistic texture, or toucher, to use the composer’s term, in the second piece of this work encompassing six sections. Toucher goes on to explore the myriad sounds and techniques of the pianos sound-scape. ‘She Hears’ is a kind of dedication to Imogen Holst, who listened to music with great intensity.  As the programme note writer tells us ‘listening is a somewhat underestimated activity’ – a theme Theodor Adorno developed in his essays on ‘listening properly’. Anderson continues this with a progression of rather static chords, which become increasingly more complex, with the counterpoint of additional, more challenging material, for the listener. There are some allusions here to Gustav Holst’s popular The Planets, also Egdon Heath. ‘Nuits’ is a celebration of the traditional piano genre, the nocturne. All the sounds, ‘perfumes’ of the night are alluded to. One particularly nice effect is a sequence of piano figurations without pedalling. The work is dedicated to Aimard, who received a generous embrace from the composer at the work’s finish. Almost needless to say, Aimard played the work with complete devotion, which included some radiant morning bell sounds in ‘Alba’, and a ‘Coda’ conclusion which brings together all the themes and counter-themes in a kind of peroration of pianistic diversity.

In a sense the piano music of Nikolay Obukhov carries on the pianistic idiom of Skryabin. Some have rather unkindly and inaccurately dismissed him as a kind of copy of Skryabin. But such eminent musicians as Ravel and Koussevitsky have claimed him to be the ‘missing link’ between Skryabin, and Messiaen and indeed one can hear shades of Messiaen in some of the works played tonight. In Invocation II he deploys a type of twelve-tone system. As tonight’s programme note writer remarks; ‘well before Schoenberg officially invented serialism’. But unlike Schoenberg, and certainly Debussy, Obukhov related what he called ‘the total harmony’ of the twelve-tone technique to a ‘universalist’ spirituality. His extreme Christian mysticism drove him to even more extreme antics than Skryabin, such as writing particular score markings in his own blood. ‘The Book of Life’, his magnum opus – a monumental symbolic cantata for vast forces celebrating all aspects of Resurrection and divinity – impressed Ravel with its ‘emotional power, and compositional innovation’. Tonight Aimard played all four pieces with incredible musical and emotional power. The many fusions of ‘atonality’, dissonant bi-tonality, and allusions to later serial technique as deployed by Schoenberg and even Webern, actually surpassing Skryabin, had a most powerful and affective register. This music in no way relates any musical/emotional comfort zone.

The concert opened with the Liszt work, which received a brilliant performance from Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Liszt’s pianistic innovations are well known. But to my ears there is usually an element of the meretricious, virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity. But he was after all one of the great nineteenth-century showman piano virtuoso performers.

As an encore Aimard played a compelling and idiomatic rendition of another piece of neglected, ignored music in the shape of George Enescu’s Carillon Nocturne.

The main concert was preceded by a most interesting talk between Aimard, Julian Anderson and piano technician Peter Salisbury. They touched on all aspects of the Bechstein piano; its specific tone; its performance in relation to different halls, different acoustics, different pianists. It was the chosen instrument of such pianists, composers such as Busoni, Rachmaninov and Debussy. All this was of course very relevant to the main concert in which Aimard played on a Bechstein of 1899. It was also fitting for the Wigmore Hall (with its excellent acoustic) which was originally the Bechstein Hall, only becoming the Wigmore Hall at the onset of the First World War.

Geoff Diggines

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