Magnificent Messiaen from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms and Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (pianos). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 24.1.2017. (MB)

Brahms – Sonata in F minor for two pianos, op.34b
MessiaenVisions de l’Amen

I am not sure that I had ever heard Brahms’s op.34 (the Piano Quintet, to most of us) in its earlier, but not earliest, two-piano version. The first movement, in this intriguing, sometimes even provocative, performance from Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, emerged not so much monochrome as with a different, darker palette. This was certainly not ‘old school’ Brahms, if such a thing ever existed. (Perhaps it did, but if so, with an array of options, certainly not as a monolith.) The tone I heard from Aimard, to whom I was seated closest, perhaps came closest to a pianist such as the Maurizio Pollini of ten or fifteen years ago. The music, of course, sounded very different; if, ultimately, I could not quite bring myself to dissent from Clara Schumann’s thought, quoted in Joanna Wyld’s programme note, that it ‘had the impression of a transcribed work’, there is often much to be learned from transcriptions, and perhaps especially what we might call transcriptions avant la lettre. Counterpoint was often clarified, although differences in attack occasionally perplexed (my fault, not that of the performance, I am sure). A curious passage of near- (yet not quite) stasis in the development had me almost (yet not quite) thinking forward in the programme to Messiaen. And then, of course, we moved forward once again. A darkly Romantic recapitulation, offered a sense of chiaroscuro with cross-stage echoing of post-Mendelssohn leggierezza, offered much more to intrigue, even to confound.

Our pianists were in no danger of confusing sentiment and sentimentality in the slow movement. What initially, to untutored ears (mine included), might have sounded a little dour, revealed its riches both horizontally and vertically, clearly prefiguring Schoenberg. Motivic complexity bred harmonic motion, and vice versa. I was struck several times, as so often with Brahms, how certain turns of phrase, especially in conjunction with harmony, had much in common with Schubert. The performers’ sense of onward tread was not dissimilar to his music either. A surprising, rather winning sense of near-swing to the opening of the scherzo was soon confounded by muscular strength of rhythm. Rhythms, though, could equally be lightly sprung. There was no more humour here than there would be in a Chopin scherzo, yet Beethovenian provenance remained clear. At times, the music seemed to cry out for an orchestra (as Clara suggested).

The abruptness of the ending seemed to prepare, or perhaps defiantly not to prepare, the way for the sheer strangeness (Book of the Hanging Gardens-strangeness) of the introduction to the finale. Tonality was not dead yet, though, as the almost Mozartian profusion of material seemed determined, if not quite without equivocation, to demonstrate. This was Brahms of a Romantic-modernist hue such as we hear far too rarely. I am not sure I have ever heard his music sound quite so perplexing in its alienation. At times, the music might almost have been by Busoni. (Now there is a thought for repertoire these artists might tackle…)

With the opening bar of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen we heard music that sounded far more at ease with the piano(s): Liszt’s tradition, then, one might say, rather than Brahms’s. And indeed I struggle to think of anything that Messiaen and Brahms have in common: this was quite a contrast, and again a provocative one at that. A magical contrast between treble registers and bass registers was to be heard in this ‘Amen de la création’. All manner of thoughts and feelings relating to Creation theology suggested themselves, although I am sure one might equally listen to this as something approaching that ever chimerical ‘absolute music’, if for some reason one wished to. The interaction of rhythmic security and metrical subtlety seemed just as important to the music’s progress as its harmonies. Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of that, Messiaen’s Debussyan heritage – this is piano music, after all – loomed large. For a slow-burn crescendo, and for much else, this was difficult to beat. Mussorgskian bells (Boris Godunov) pealed, not without menace, or at least disquietude.

Mussorgsky’s ghost perhaps remained during the ensuing ‘Amen des étoiles, de la panète à l’anneau’. Scurrying figures reminded me on occasion of his Pictures at an Exhibition. Darkness of spirit was conveyed: angels are not merely, or even generally, ‘nice’. They, like the music and its performance, are ever inspiring, never predictable, awe-inspiring. Grey secularism could likewise not have stood further from the ensuing ‘Amen de l’agonie de Jésus’. Agony does not necessarily mean what the secular-minded think it does, not entirely anyway. Here there was ecstasy in radiant beauty, something lying quite beyond mere ‘pain’, indeed sublimely dissociated therefrom. Late Liszt hovered in the air at the close, above all in Aimard’s low, very low bass notes.

‘Amen du désir’ brought reminders of an earlier, more perfumed Messiaen, this celestial banquet yet also prefiguring certain aspects of Turangalîla, both for better and for worse. It nauseated; it more than skirted with the banal. But that was part of the point. By way of sharp contrast, the ‘Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux’ opened as if an antiphon were being intoned; in a sense, it is. It then went on its cheerful way, seemingly assured of its blessed nature, which again, one might say, in a sense, it is. The performance brought out the importance of contrasting material: as important, it seemed, as progress (I hesitate to say ‘development’) in time.

Majesty, not only in the ravishingly voiced chords, but also in their juxtaposition, characterised for me the sixth Amen, that of ‘jugement’. With the concluding, indeed consummating, ‘Amen de la consommation’, this church-cum-concert-hall was intoxicated, bewitched even, by a brew of ecstatic triumph and something apocalyptic (Stefanovich), which seemed both to underlie and to undermine. Virtuosic piano tradition was here relished – and yet the music was clearly concerned with matters that would have bewildered most other pianist-composers, with the possible exception of Liszt, in that tradition or those traditions. Extraordinary!

Mark Berry

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