The Second Liszt Anniversary Recital from Pierre-Laurent Aimard. As Challenging and Rewarding as the First

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Liszt, Wagner, Berg, and Scriabin: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 7.12.2011 (MB)

LisztLa lugubre gondola I, S 200
Wagner – Piano Sonata in A-flat major, ‘Für das Album von Frau MW’
LisztNuages gris, S 199
Berg – Piano Sonata, op.1
LisztUnstern! sinister, disastro, S 208
Scriabin – Piano Sonata no.9 in F major, op.68, ‘Black Mass
Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178


The second of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s International Piano Series recitals continued his focus on Liszt. Whereas the first had arguably offered more varied fare, relatively earlier works combined with music by Bartók, Marco Stroppa, Ravel, and Messiaen, here, at least in the first half, was late Liszt with a vengeance. An uncompromising programme paired three of his extraordinary late elegies with Wagner, Berg, and Scriabin. Even the B minor sonata, the single work performed in the second half, took on a later tinge than one might have expected, partly by dint of Aimard’s programming, and partly on account of his performance.

The recital opened with the first version of La lugubre gondola. (Not the second version, as stated in Harriet Smith’s often bizarre programme notes, which veered between Woman’s Own – ‘We cannot be sure how far their relationship went, but Wagner was clearly out to impress Mathilde’ – and Blue Peter: ‘Listen to the opening of this sonata, forgetting about the rhythm for a moment. Does that melodic shape recall anything?’) Liszt’s barcarolle rhythm was clear and profoundly generative in Aimard’s performance: if the Venetian equivalent of sea-sickness is river-sickness, then that is what one felt, the Nietzschean décadence of the Wagners’ Palazzo Vendramin oppressively apparent. Thomas Mann – more so than Visconti – was never far away. Aimard conveyed a fine sense of the forcibly subdued, or even subjugated: something was trying to break free from whatever was stifling it – and us. Wagner’s ‘Album’ Sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck followed. It is a grossly underrated work: just because it is not Liszt’s sonata does not mean that it is not worth performing. Aimard offered as fine a performance as I have heard: tempi well-nigh ideal and fluid as required. Even if the piano-writing is not Liszt’s, some of the sonorities are – and the same might be said of Beethoven, both in placing of chords and even some melodic characteristics. Aimard brought these to our attention without exaggeration, and wisely pointed also to the kinship with aspects of Lohengrin. His performance was never over-heated: this is not the Treibhaus of Tristan. It was, however, utterly involving.

Nuages gris received a subtle performance, subtle in terms of intervallic relationships, pointing the way to Webern, and also with respect to dynamic shading. The vertical and the horizontal stood in perfect balance – or fruitful dialectic. Berg’s early sonata emerged intriguingly from the aftermath, both works sharing the importance of the augmented fourth, and Berg’s work also, of course, pointing the way towards the B minor tonality of Liszt’s own sonata in the second half. Luxuriant Straussian and Schoenbergian textures were held in fruitful tension with the need for concision. More than once, one could hear the Schoenberg of, say, the First Chamber Symphony in what I am tempted to call the ‘hectic clarity’ of developmental counterpoint. Schoenberg’s songs also seemed close in the harmony and placing of chords. If Schoenberg and Debussy were perhaps the most surprising omissions from Aimard’s two recitals – one cannot include everything – then neither composer would be entirely absent in spirit.

Unstern! is as uncompromising as Liszt gets. It received a duly uncompromising performance, starkly persistent in its noble yet desolate emphasis upon – yet again – the tritone. I have not heard a more diabolical performance, the fabled diabolus in musica dramatically as well as theoretically apparent. And the anger: what anger lay in those chords preceding the final, faint hope of redemption! Figuration then took us back to the world of La lugubre gondola, the desperation of Liszt’s late music often lying in its denial of development, whilst all the more strongly implying its necessity. (That is very different from, say, Messiaen, for whom development is often not even an issue.) Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ sonata persisted with and yet also transformed the darkness of Unstern! Those hopeless would-be fanfares, still more a hallmark of R.W. – Venezia – not performed here – found their identity as echoes of Liszt, albeit perfumed echoes. There was devilry too, though: for the first time, though certainly not the last, in this recital, Aimard was called upon to deliver the music with true virtuosity, and he did. Debussy on acid, I thought, not least upon hearing those trippy bells of death.

Anyone interested in piano music will have a favourite performance of the Liszt sonata against which to measure others. (Mine is Sviatoslav Richter’s.) It is a state of affairs as inevitable as it is sometimes unfortunate, the danger being that one closes one’s ears to alternative standpoints. Such was the strength of Aimard’s reading that one was soon utterly convinced, a few surprisingly muddy textures at the opening of the exposition proper notwithstanding. Moreover, one certainly heard the introduction with new ears, given the context of the recital as a whole, the radicalism of Liszt’s scales all the more clear, even the best part of three decades earlier than the mysteries of his late works. Throughout there was a fine sense of purpose, if without – at least earlier on – the abandon of some. Motivic working was lain bare with exemplary clarity: an especially important consideration in this of all works, Liszt’s transformative technique crucial to even the most basic analytical understanding. The second subject was exquisitely shaped, as ravishing as any operatic melody, yet all the more meaningful given the motivic transformation that had brought us to that stage. Any of the slight textural doubts I had entertained earlier on were banished by the development. Ugly, or at least dark, sounds were not banished, but incorporated, above all into truly thumping chords: it is worth reiterating that this was a sonata definitely heard through the ears of what was to come. And yet, the line so magically spun in the slow movement – itself part of the one-movement development in Liszt’s daring formal scheme – could not have been more delicately voiced. The fugato/scherzo/false recapitulation was Mephistophelian rather than darkly diabolical: contrapuntal clarity negated rather than terrified, Faust chosen over theology in Aimard’s reading. That said, there was an overwhelming sense of arrival at the true dawn of the recapitulation, during which any slight earlier inhibition was quite forgotten, the obsessive nature of Liszt’s motivic working intensified in Aimard’s grand yet detailed sweep. This time around, the second subject was truly heart-stopping, not least since the moment of rare – in every sense – beauty was so hard-won. One feared, as one ought to, for the pianist’s safe passage through the horrendous double octaves, but he emerged, if not quite unscathed, then with great credit. The final peace was a little uneasy, most likely not passing understanding: very much of a piece with the spirit of Aimard’s performance throughout. At last, a noisy audience fell silent.

Mark Berry