Birtwistle Games – 5 (IPS)

Ostinato with Melody
Catalogue d’Oiseaux – Book V: 8. L’alouette Calandrelle
Catalogue d’Oiseaux – Book III: 5. La chouette Hulotte
Sarabande: The King’s Farewell
Catalogue d’Oiseaux – Book III: 6. L’alouette Lulu
Musica Ricercata – 1. Sostenuto
Harrison’s Clocks – No.5
Gaspard de la nuit – 2. Le Gibet
Harrison’s Clocks – No.2
Out of Doors – 4. The Night’s Music
Harrison’s Clocks – No.4
Huit Préludes – 6. Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu
Harrison’s Clocks – No.3
Études – 13. (Book II, No.7) L’escalier du Diable

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 November, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The idea of devoting a recital to a succession of short pieces, the salon miniature, is very much out of fashion. Pierre-Laurent Aimard offered 15 diminutive creations – a concert both part of “Birtwistle Games” and “International Piano Series” – mostly selected from bigger works or excerpted from cycles, the composers chosen both dripping with individuality and sometimes, however unknowingly, sharing similar expression.

An announcement was made before Aimard entered that he wished no applause between pieces, rightly so, but a shame we needed to be so requested; intelligent listeners would surely do this instinctively. The 30-minute first-half and 50-minute second made for engrossing listening (Aimard’s design would make a marvellous CD and, time-wise, would fit like a glove). The link was Harrison Birtwistle; the first half juxtaposing three of his occasional pieces with three of Messiaen’s Catalogue of Birds; the second half went wider, four Harrison’s Clocks (a typical example of Birtwistlian titular wordplay) framed by Ligeti and interspersed by nocturnal, bell-imitating, impressionistic pieces by Ravel, Bartók and Messiaen.

Ostinato with Melody, written for Pierre Boulez’s 75th-birthday, is as described but with engaging fluidity; Messiaen entered with gravely beautiful chords, and rhythmic resourcefulness and, from Aimard, a light, shade and subtlety that disarms the listener that might feel one bird sounds much like another! Birtwistle’s Précis suggested its time, 1960, with economic and rebarbative gestures, and Messiaen returned, seamlessly, for some dangerous propositions. The King’s Farewell, marking Birtwistle’s stepping down as Professor of Composition at King’s College London, for all its elaboration also went straight to the heart in its expressiveness before the ‘Lulu’ bird rippled to Rachmaninov-like tinkling and called in private and curvaceous terms.

The second half opened with an intimated drum-roll to get the standing-around-chatting brigade scurrying to their seats; György Ligeti then jests with repetition and gnarled rhythms before sounding the note that matters; boundary-breaking music can be witty! For Harrison’s Clocks (after John Harrison’s intricate timepieces), we heard the last of the five first, each begins with the same striking downward signal, with the ultimate Clock displaying melody in the undergrowth and reminding of, and here pre-empting, Bartók. The central panel of Gaspard picked up the singleness of Birtwistle’s distillation, Aimard conjuring eerie stillness and night-water bell-sounds before the coiled-spring and wind-down of Clock 2. Bartók’s nocturnal flicker, fireflies, and Hungarian roots were wholly distinctive yet sent the mind back to the first heard of Messiaen’s birds. Clock 4 is a fierce toccata, well contrasted with the perfume of this particular Messiaen Prélude, rarefied and ecstatic (too long too!) and with a harking back to Ravel and Debussy, specifically the latter’s Submerged Cathedral. The two final pieces found Birtwistle and Ligeti in coruscating form, the opening pecks of the former could have passed for Messiaen birdsong, and Ligeti’s devil was either descending to hell or escaping from it.

Either way, literally, this was a dazzling recital that was as enlightening as it was compelling.

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