Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Mastery in Contemporary Piano Music

GermanyGermany Anderson, Benjamin, Ligeti, Kurtág, Stroppa, Carter, and Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 26.10.2017. (MB)

Julian Anderson – Sensation (2015-16): ‘Toucher’
George Benjamin – Shadowlines: ‘Tempestoso’ and ‘Very freely’ (2001)
Ligeti – Études: ‘Der Zauberlehrling’ and ‘Entrelacs’ (1994, 1993)
Kurtág – Játékok: ‘Passio sine nomine’ (2015)
Marco Stroppa – Miniatura estrose (1991-2001): ‘Passacaglia canonical in contrappunto
Carter – Caténaires (2006)
Messiaen – Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ (1958)

If it would be an exaggeration to describe this as a recital of music that ‘belonged’ to Pierre-Laurent Aimard – music, surely, belongs to us all – then it would be a pardonable exaggeration, whose purpose and meaning were clear. Here were pieces, mostly drawn from larger works or collections, with which Aimard has a particular connection, and with which he could – and did – speak not only with great authority but with eminently thoughtful musicality. Nothing was taken for granted; indeed, the music spoke both with the freshness of the new and the understanding of a grounded repertoire.

I wish I could feel the enthusiasm so many friends, colleagues, fellow musicians and music-lovers clearly feel for the music of Julian Anderson. That includes, clearly, Aimard, who gave the premiere of Sensation at Aldeburgh last year, and here extracted from it, in what he believed to be its German premiere, the second movement, ‘Toucher’. I have never actively disliked any of Anderson’s music, but rarely have I discerned much beneath an often attractive surface. Perhaps that is the point; I am not so sure. At any rate, this piece, conceived, in Anderson’s words, ‘with particular emphasis on the French tradition of the jeu perlé – playing of great lightness, speed and clarity – of which Pierre-Laurent Aimard … is such a brilliant exponent,’ made for an impressive pianistic opening. It sounded as if conceived more or less in a single, dare I say melodic, line, with certain additions or elucidations, often chordal, around it. The chords certainly sounded very ‘French’, Messiaen in particular coming to mind in some of the harmonies.

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, from which we heard here the fourth and fifth movements, followed: another work of which Aimard had given the first performance. This emerged very much as a re-examination, more to my taste, even perhaps to my understanding, of canonical procedures, thereby offering our ears and minds as much vertically as horizontally. It seemed, in performance as well as in the work ‘itself’, that not only had polyphony been reinstated, but so too had its typical dialectic between freedom and organisation. Or perhaps that is just someone speaking who has been spending too much time with Schoenberg recently. At any rate, the piano writing (and playing) had an intriguing sense of the Germanic to it as well: far from exclusive, or even predominant, but unmistakeable, at least to these ears. Aimard clearly relished its complexities; so too did I.

Aimard’s collaboration with Ligeti verges upon the ‘legendary’: (not, of course, in the sense that it did not happen!) Aimard gave the premieres of many of the composer’s later piano works, these two Études included. What immediately struck me, both in no.10, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and no.12, ‘Entrelacs’, was the ‘finish’ to what we heard, again both as work and as performance. This, one felt, was a mastery, compositional and performative, worthy of, say, Ravel. If the first offered something of a connection to the Anderson piece, its emphasis perhaps in a broad sense ‘melodic’, the metrical transformations and layering of ‘Entrelacs’ seemed both to speak of kinship with and difference from Elliott Carter (still to come). The energy was impossible to resist – and why on earth would one try?

I suspect that, by now, you can guess who gave the 2015 first performance of Kurtág’s ‘Passio sine nomine’, from his compendious Játékok. He seemed to do it proud again here in Berlin. I was especially struck by a certain obstinacy, an almost religious truculence – although was that a thought elicited by the title? – a Credo quia absurdum, both to the material and to the performance. All that Bach the Kurtágs have played sounded with something I am tempted to call immanence.

Aimard gave the premiere of Marco Stroppa’s Miniature estrose in 1995; a second premiere, of the completed version, was given by Florian Hölscher in 2000. Here, Aimard’s performance of the ‘Passacaglia canonical in contrappunto policocromatico’ seemed very much to make use of the Pierre Boulez Saal – there, of course, is another composer to whom Aimard could hardly have stood closer! – as an instrument in itself. (How very different it must have sounded in that premiere at the Opéra Bastille!) The almost whispered intimacies and indeed the entire dynamic range sounded very much a product of the hall as well as of the keyboard. So too did their interaction with other parameters, and with other, more malleable aspects of the music. The sheer beauty of work and performance shone through.

Ever youthful, the work of Carter ended the first ‘half’; here we heard the composer at 102. In Caténaires, we heard once again consummate mastery. I thought of Ligeti’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and perceived – if sometimes only just – a penumbra of polyphonic possibilities surrounding what is, for Carter, as Aimard explained, an unusually un-polyphonic work. The composer indeed spoke of having ‘become obsessed with the idea of a fast one-line piece with no chords’. Was it perverse for me to have heard it that way? Perhaps, but nevertheless I did. Truly, though, its energy sounded as music for the age of computers, even of the Internet.

Aimard did not, of course, give the first performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux; Yvonne Loriod did, in one of Boulez’s Domaine musical concerts. His association with all concerned, however, is strong and deep, and so it sounded here. Aimard’s recording of the complete work will be released next year. This performance of the vast ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ (‘The Reed Warbler’), at about half an hour, offered quite the calling card. More than that, it seemed, whether this were the illusion of performance and programming or something more, to unite and indeed to develop many of the tendencies we had heard earlier, whilst remaining of course very much itself. No one else could have written this music! The opening, as much for the different sonorities heard simultaneously as for their pitches, sounded as if performed with three hands. Admittedly, I could not see the keyboard, but I am reasonably sure that it was not. Through the violent eruptions, the silences (what silences!), the different colours (whether one actually ‘sees’ them or no), the luscious harmonies, the obstinate rhythms, the undeniable religious mysticism, and of course the birdsong, both a singularity of voice and a multiplicity of voices seemed to assert themselves – and to express a joy in being, in music-making that penetrated to the essence of Messiaen’s art. Everything sounded refracted through, not just related to but derived from, everything else. Perhaps ‘total serialism’ had not passed after all; it had simply, or not so simply, reinvented itself.

Mark Berry

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