Pierre-Laurent Aimard Excels in an Important New Birtwistle Piece

Stravinsky, Birtwistle, Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.12.2014 (MB)

StravinskySymphonies of Wind Instruments
BirtwistleResponses: Sweet disorder and the carefully careless, for piano and orchestra (UK première)
MessiaenOiseaux exotiques


The final event of Birtwistle’s eightieth anniversary year, at least for me: the British première of his new work for piano and orchestra, Responses, first performed in Munich this October, by its dedicatee, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. To grant the work its full, somewhat cumbersome title, replete with subtitle after a collection of architectural essays by Robert Maxwell, Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully, careless, is certainly better understood as a work for piano and orchestra rather than a piano concerto as such. The contrast with the (relatively) recent Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is strong in that and many other respects. That said, Birtwistle, in a programme interview with Jonathan Cross, does refer to this work as ‘my new concerto’.

 Later in that interview, Birtwistle remarks: ‘When one thinks of a concerto, one usually expects the orchestra to play some of the tune, then the soloist to play some of it. It’s the same material. This is not the case in my work. Rather, it’s a dialogue: the soloist is asking questions.’ Hence Responses, and that is certainly how it sounded, from the opening pulsating E – as Cross notes, that pitch a typical starting-point – onwards. Yes, there is questioning, and yes, this is definitely a piece for piano and orchestra, no ‘mere’ ensemble here (eight double basses, three percussionists, two harps, and so on). Piano chords sound, especially, I suspect, in Aimard’s hands, like ghosts stranded between the nineteenth century and Birtwistle’s own modernism. The orchestra glistens, machine-like: again highly characteristic. There seem to be some intriguing echoes of Messiaen, presumably part of the reason for programming the work with Oiseaux exotiques. And there is dramatic insistence, especially from the brass, sounding against longing, string-based melancholy, in what seemed to me very much post-Minotaur fashion. There is frenzy, with something of the Dionysian to it. (Although I suspect this merely to be coincidence, I was a couple of times, especially with respect to the percussion, put in mind of the Maenads’ Hunt from Henze’s opera, The Bassarids, albeit in a more fractured, more ritualised fashion.) Less a cadenza, more a brief soliloquy, one piano passage brings on a sense of momentary stillness, against which piano and orchestra seem to wish to escape; it is a more arduous task, however, than it initially might seem. The idea, or perhaps better, practice of hocketing is clearly instantiated – and, of course, dramatised. I had a sense of spatial games within the orchestra, without the actual movement of, say, Theseus Game. Gabrieli reimagined for a ‘conventional’ orchestra and soloist? Theseus Game reimagined in a world after The Minotaur and the Violin Concerto? Perhaps. Or maybe it is ‘just’ another exploration of particular material. In truth, of course, there is no need for either/or here. Jurowski and the LPO offered excellent performances, as of course did Aimard; it is always difficult to judge, of course, from a first hearing, but I had the sense that this was how the work ‘should’ sound.

 Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques received a mesmerising account, its hieratic opening recalling the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, with which the concert had opened, though the language is unmistakeably Messiaen’s own. The piano is more clearly a concertante instrument here; indeed, much of its role is taken up with cadenzas. Ironically, the dialogue here seemed more overtly, or at least more straightforwardly, responsorial. Orchestral colours sounded as vivid as they could to one who is not a synesthete. The naïve, elemental quality to so much of Messiaen’s music registered just as powerfully as the complexity of his ‘enormous counterpoint of birdsong’. Not least, this was a riotous and ecstatic performance. Aimard played his part – superlatively – from memory.

 On either side came works by Stravinsky. Symphonies of Wind Instruments has long held fascination for Birtwistle – and indeed for many of the rest of us. In Jurowski’s performance, it opened just as it should: angular, spiky, hieratic, aggressive. Echoes of the Rite of Spring were perhaps unusually apparent in the contrasting material. Neo-Classicism seemed to shoot forth, yet also to withdraw; this, one felt, was more than often being read as a ‘transitional’ work. Soldier’s Tale puppetry and Œdipus Rex gravity, life and desiccation: it was in its very particular way, and whatever Adorno may have thought, as dialectical as Beethoven. Moreover, it sounded very much as a curtain-raiser to a drama.

 Orpheus brought another different variety of ensemble, this time a smaller, well-nigh ‘Classical’ orchestra. The grave beauty of the opening truly sounded as the scenario has it: ‘Orpheus weeps for Eurydice. He stands motionless…’. Already, there were to be heard in this work (1946-7) intimations of The Rake’s Progress, yet seemingly without its polemical aggression. Orpheus’s violin solo inevitably rekindled memories of The Soldier’s Tale (again) and indeed the Violin Concerto. Rather to my surprise, I also fancied I heard a balletic kinship with Prokofiev. Perhaps it was Jurowski’s ‘Russian’ conducting? I cannot help but feel that some of the later music finds the composer a little on auto-pilot, but maybe it is more a matter of the ultra-neo-Classical æsthetic still presenting problems for me. At any rate, other of Stravinsky’s works from around this period seemed unusually present: the Symphony in Three Movements, Dumbarton Oaks, the Concerto in D. The LPO offered frozen beauty in the final scene, those descending harp scales ritually yet newly combined with lines from horns and trumpet. ‘Orpheus is dead, the song is gone, but the accompaniment goes on.’ That comment from Stravinsky, cited in Anthony Burton’s programme note, was perhaps not without relevance to Birtwistle too.


Mark Berry

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