La mer – three symphonic sketches
Piano Concerto No.2
The Rite of Spring
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 21 May, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
This second concert by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra completed its traversal of Bartók’s three piano concertos with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. As on the previous evening, Bartók’s music was juxtaposed with early twentieth-century masterpieces by Debussy and Stravinsky that were radical departures from earlier musical conventions. As the orchestra’s principal conductor Jonathan Nott explained in a post-concert interview, he sought through this programming not only to provide context for the Bartók concerto, but also to debunk some common misconceptions of the other two works and their composers.
Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto was both the focal point and the highlight of the concert. Nott placed the percussion instruments with the piano in front of the orchestra, forming a sort of concertino – the same arrangement that the composer had specified in the score of his Piano Concerto No.1. This proved to be quite effective, particularly in the passages that were effectively duets between the piano and timpani.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a brilliant performance of the fiendishly difficult piano part. In the Allegro first movement (in which the strings do not play), Aimard played rapid scales and toccata-like passages with finger-contorting chords with apparent ease, bringing out not only the very obvious influences of Stravinsky but also Bartók’s more subtle allusions to the baroque.
Muted strings ushered in the Adagio that began the second movement, their chorale of layered perfect fifths, played without vibrato, creating an eerie atmosphere. The strings were interrupted by two interludes in which the piano, with a serious, hesitant theme, engaged in a clever dialogue with the timpani. Aimard’s dazzling technique was manifest in the energetic mid-movement scherzo (the keystone of the palindromic arch of the entire concerto) with a percussive, trilling and densely harmonized piano part. The Adagio tempo resumed with violin tremolos, against which Aimard played a long trill and then an extended contrapuntal passage with swirling figures. Finally, the string chorale and piano-timpani dialogue returned to complete the movement’s symmetric structure.
In the Allegro molto finale, Bartók brought the piano and the full orchestra together for the first time, with timpani and other percussion again prominent, and the winds and brass – especially the trumpets – also making noteworthy contributions. Aimard’s accurate and incisive playing captured the music’s witty spirit right through to his interrupting a resplendent brass choir with a final, rollicking reprise of the concerto’s opening theme that quickly resolved in a bright final cadence.
The orchestra played extremely well throughout the concert, including faithful adherence to Nott’s conceptions of the Debussy and Stravinsky works. In La mer, Nott’s aim was to bring out the powerful aspects of Debussy’s score rather than emphasising the more ethereal sounds commonly associated with ‘impressionism’. Nott also wished to show that there is more to The Rite of Spring than massive sound and driving rhythms, so he focused on its more lyrical sections. Through these interpretations of the two works, Nott also was providing support for the proposition that Debussy was a more revolutionary figure in the evolution of music in the twentieth-century than Stravinsky. Nott may have accomplished all of these objectives – but only at a price.
Although I can both appreciate and agree intellectually with Nott’s didactics and admire his skill as a conductor in shaping these performances, my listening preferences remain conventional enough to feel keenly the absence of the elements that he eschewed. The power and precision of individual passages and brilliant instrumental playing in La mer did not suffice to compensate for the absence of a light and airy touch that would allow Debussy’s seascapes to sparkle and shimmer more brightly. In a word, this music needed to breathe more. And in much of The Rite I missed the sense of wild abandon and incredible effusion of energy that can make this work feel as fresh and groundbreaking as it was almost a century ago.