Aimard Plays Bach:Well-Tempered and Well Played

United StatesUnited StatesBach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York, 13.11.2014 (SSM)

The documentary Pianomania: In Search of the Perfect Sound follows the peregrinations of Stefan Knüpfer, the piano-tuner’s piano tuner as he prepares instruments for the likes of Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. A year before Aimard recorded the Art of the Fugue for Deutsche Grammaphon, he was already obsessing about the kind of sound he wanted his piano to produce. At one point, the ever-patient Knüpfer asks Aimard, “Do you want a big sound,” and stretches out his arms; “or a little one,” and puts two fingers together, as if to say “itsy bitsy.” Aimard smiles and replies, “I want both.” At one point, Knüpfer even takes the piano apart to accommodate a request by Aimard for an adjustment in sound.

I’m not sure if the piano Aimard was using here was, in fact, that special Steinway, but I was impressed with the sound and the ever-changing tonal colors that that he was able to draw from it. If I had closed my eyes, I would have said that Aimard (or Knüpfer) had gotten around the Steinway monopoly on the Carnegie Hall stage. Instead, I would have assumed they had replaced it with a Fazioli or the Bösendorfer Imperial: both instruments are capable of a light, silvery tone not normally heard on the Steinway.

Aimard, a strong advocate of modern music, has played and recorded works by Elliot Carter, Messaien, Ligeti and Boulez. His recordings of the Ligeti Études and Messaien’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus are the standard against which all others are judged. So I wondered what stylistic influences, if any, he might reveal. Listening to the opening prelude, played matter-of-factly as if by a first-year student, I worried about what would come for the next 2 hours. I needn’t have: every prelude and every fugue had been thoroughly thought through. Not all were executed in a style that would please each listener, but there was something for everyone. There was not the muscle of Richter’s WTC or the mad rushes of Glenn Gould, the studied rigidity of Rosalyn Tureck, the crisp, cool playing of Angela Hewitt or the appealing Glenn-Gouldish Andras Schiff, but there seemed to be some of all these pianists in his fingers.

After the intermission, the theater, which may have been 90% filled at the start, lost perhaps 20% of that audience. This is not background music, and it was never meant to be performed as a complete work. Many of the pieces are pedantic in nature. The opening of the 7th Prelude could have been filched from Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, another work Bach used for pedagogical purposes. I realised, too, that Aimard must be impervious to such rudeness and laziness on the part of the audience.

Aimard isn’t as strict as Schiff, who avoids all use of the pedal, and his foot stayed on the sustain pedal, but it was used sparingly. As a rule, he paused between pieces, but in some instances, as between the 11th and 12th, he sped up in the final measures and went straight into the next prelude. I loved the way he took the syncopations in the 13th Prelude, giving the 2-note motif a little turn in its dynamics as if he wanted to imitate a hiccup. And then there was the sheer upbeat joy of the 15th Prelude and Fugue in G Major.

I guess every performer wants the final cadences of the last work in the program to be outstanding, dramatic, memorable. But Bach never thought of this work as one requiring anything special for the ending because he didn’t imagine it being played as a whole. Aimard went a little too far in slowing down the final measures, holding on dramatically well past the time for the notes to decay, and another good 30 seconds before lifting his hands from the keyboard and allowing the audience to applaud. (Interestingly, he leaves the 30 seconds of silence on his recording of this work as well.)

Those who left before the second half of the program missed out on a far more upbeat group of preludes and fugues than in the first part. Played well, as they were here by Aimard, these piano exercises prove to be lovely miniatures filled with wit and charm.

Stan Metzger

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