Aimard and Roth present an exhilarating celebration of Beethoven at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven et al: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.2.2020. (CC)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (c) Marco Borggreve

Beethoven – Bagatelles Op.119 Nos. 7, 9-11; Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat Op.73 (‘Emperor’)
Isabel MundryResonances (2020, UK premiere)
Francesco FilideiQuasi una bagatellla (2019, UK premiere)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor Op. 27/2 (‘Moonlight’), Adagio sostenuto
Lachenmann – Tableau (1988)
Isabel Mundry – Resonances (UK premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony No.1 in C Op.21, first movement, excerpt; Symphony No.7 in A Op.92, Allegretto; Piano Sonata No 32 in C minor Op.111, excerpt
ZimmermannPhotoptosis (1968)

This was more than a fascinating idea: it was a concert experience (for there were elements of drama and lighting that made it into more than a concert) that seemed to shoot out into myriad directions. Just as Editions Musica Ferum issued a series of contemporary composers’ responses to Beethoven, so here we heard music by several contemporary composers inspired by, or reacting to, Beethoven.

The actual order of performance was given out in a free sheet after the performance, although it was discernible and seemed to follow what was announced, the only real surprise being the contributions of Isabel Mundry, whose music either underpinned or linked items on the programme. There was a choreographer, Jörg Weinöhl, who had presumably determined Aimard’s slow-motion walks on- and off-stage.

Aimard had opted for four of the Op. 119 set of Bagatelles, preceded by dark percussion rumbles. Specific members of the orchestra stood then sat down. Significantly, Aimard had chosen the latter numbers of the Op. 119 set, the ones that were written in 1820, after the Sonatas Opp. 101 and 106 (the first five had been sketched by as early as 1803). Aimard’s pithy delivery of these enigmatic pieces perfectly judged, led to a fascinating performance of the ‘Emperor’ that was very different from Seong-Jin Cho’s in Basel just over a week ago. There, the Gstaad Festival Orchestra had shown itself to be a prime ensemble; the Cologne orchestra in comparison seemed second tier, slightly rough around the edges. Aimard’s interpretation was typically exact and very proper, and at times illuminating; his technique is impeccable, though, the flourishes perfect. Whether the choreography at the onset of the second movement was planned or not seems ambiguous: he put a piece of music on his music stand that clearly was not the second movement, then closed it. It was, however, a splendid central movement, strings non-vibrato, Aimard with just the right amount of expression. The finale held plenty of energy but there were some moments of rough ensemble. The final chord was held, unexpectedly, leading into the fun and frivolity of Francesco Filidei’s Quasi una bagatelle, a piece that had received its world premiere just a little while previously, on February 9. Filidei, born in Pisa in 1972, has studied in Florence and Paris. He clearly has a sense of fun which he houses within a modernist idiom. Traditional cadences zoom in and out of focus as if only dimly felt within a prevailing, rather zany dreamworld. This was very playful indeed, with Aimard’s forearm cluster very much a part of that. This sense of light-heartedness seems to be part of Filidei’s make-up: a piece called Killing Bach is on a Neos disc of the Donaeuechinger Musiktage 2015, and it operates on a similar level.

An interval was most definitely needed. So much to think about, and not a little curiosity around what might happen next. The theme seems to be that music we thought we knew was being recontextualised and illuminated, and the second part began with some of the most famous Beethoven of all: the so-called ‘Moonlight’ sonata, first movement. And so it was: while modes of lighting had shifted regularly in the first half, here there was more discombobulation, more departures from the norm. Isabel Mundry’s Resonances once more came into play, with three pianos (one recorded, one orchestral) adding to the refractions of Beethoven’s original: reflecting on a moonlit lake, perhaps? It is, though, a long way from Beethoven and Mundry to Lachenmann, whose Tableau of 1988 is a complex examination of sound; lots of breath blowing through instruments, woodwind instruments held high in the air as if mid-Mahler but with notes only fingered, not played; highly rhythmic, often explosive. A fabulously daring piece, music that was once the bread and butter of London audiences, now only a fleeting visitor from a European orchestra. Unisons become highly effective when they occur, signposts almost.

More Mundy to link between that and two movements excerpted from Beethoven Symphonies. No Classic FM-style breastfeeding of the audience here; instead we had the provocative juxtaposition of the first movement of the First Symphony (C major) and the Allegretto from the Seventh (A minor). After the repeated exposition of the First Symphony, the music seemed to slip like paint dripping on a canvas; orchestra members standing and then sitting again alerted us, if it were needed, to the change, as the music morphed itself into the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. This was taken at a healthy tempo and received a lovely performance, heavy on the diminuendo of the last two crotchets of the second bar (and its repetitions) of the famous theme. From there to C minor for the last movement of the last Piano Sonata – or at least some of it in a beautifully chiselled performance by Aimard. A trill, that archetypal storehouse of energy in late Beethoven, became a bridge to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s quarter-hour Photoptosis. Paul Griffiths’ notes referred to the ‘silvery ascents’ in this work: not so noticeable here as in Hannu Lintu’s recording for Ondine with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, perhaps, but this piece, which includes an organ part that one feels rather than hears, began with chthonic pulsings and rose to a crushingly dissonant climax. Quotations again are part of the musical fabric: no missing the trumpet of Parsifal. Scriabin, Tchaikovsky and, of course, Beethoven were all called upon. The piece is subtitled ‘Prelude’; sonically, that might indeed refer to Debussy’s efforts, as Paul Griffiths suggested in the programme notes; but the music itself has all the heft of a post-Wagner (or perhaps, with all that silvery writing, post-Zemlinsky) stage Prelude. Magnificent, and phenomenally performed. Whatever minor caveats one might harbour for the orchestra, Roth was ever in command, his vision clear.

Quote a night: and how often does one leave a concert quite as exhilarated, challenged and enlightened as this? Bring back the 1980s.

Colin Clarke

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