Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Alice Tully Hall

Piano Sonata in D, K284
George Benjamin
Piano Figures
Klavierstück IX
Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op.35 (Eroica)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 15 November, 2009
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerNew Yorkers have had good reason to be wary of new and improved concert venues since the opening of Lincoln Center. The notorious acoustics of Philharmonic Hall and its subsequent multiple refits as Avery FIsher Hall and the famously botched restoration of Carnegie Hall (which was subsequently corrected for the most part) remain sore points for music lovers. And despite the massive leaps forward in the science of acoustics, I was still a bit wary upon entering the recently reopened Alice Tully Hall. I concur with Violet Bergen’s assessment of the exterior and foyer, but was impressed with the sleek look of the interior. The comfortable, warm wood tones, curved stage side walls and circle motifs on the rear stage wall (which act as acoustic dispersers) serve as a recessed visual frame putting the focus on the artists. The aerodynamically sleek structure of the auditorium makes the space seem larger than it is, and the dramatic lighting complements the stage design, adding flair to concert ‘ceremony’. The seat was another matter entirely: stiff, inadequately cushioned and uncomfortable.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard has become a New York favorite. He had long been a not-so-well-kept secret among fans of postwar avant-garde music, but has also carved out a reputation as an engaging interpreter of baroque and classical repertoire. The present program set two masterpieces of the classical era with one of the European postwar avant-garde and a recent work by one of Europe’s leading composers.

Mozart’s D major Piano Sonata is considered by many scholars to be the first such work of that composer’s maturity. Aimard nevertheless imparted contrasting touches of youthful impetuousness and elegance in his approach to the opening Allegro, and found a satisfying balance between the imaginative melodies and dance-based rhythm of the central Andante rondo and polonaise, a somewhat unusual structure. The finale is an ambitious Theme and Variations; Aimard brought surprisingly delineated contrast to the character of each commentary, and his prodigious technical gifts made many of the particularly demanding passage sound easy. But even Aimard can’t convince this listener that this particular movement is far too much of a good thing, and that Mozart failed to balance the work by virtue of a few variations too many.

Olivier Messiaen called George Benjamin his favorite student which is remarkable praise, considering the litany of master-composers who studied with him. Benjamin’s suite of ten short pieces for younger players, Piano Figures, was written only five years ago (and premiered by Aimard), yet its harmonic grammar is clearly in the orbit of Messiaen’s early piano works. Aimard evoked the strong personality and imagery of each movement to enchanting effect. There are echoes of Bartók and Stravinsky in the impetuous rhythmic material of a few of the sections, particularly ‘Interruptions’ and ‘Hammers’; there were gestures in the final movement, ‘Whirling’, that were reminiscent of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. This is some of the most enjoyable and edifying piano music written this decade.

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX is arguably one of the most important piano works written since World War Two. It has been a calling-card for many pianists who specialize in avant-garde music – but was also championed by no less than Shura Cherkassky, who performed it with dramatic flair at one of the most memorable recitals I have ever attended, at Carnegie Hall in 1989. Aimard introduced with a brief explanation of the work’s structure and underlying concepts, most notably that of pitches and sounds interfering with each other – and also mentioned the coughing that had interfered with the finale of the Mozart, which was met with approving applause by the audience. Aimard’s approach pitted the static, repetitive chordal material against the ascending melodic figures, conjuring a work whose structure and sonorities are at war through the first half, using particularly incisive intensity and flourish on the more rapid figures slowly – then slowly unwinding the tension as the interfering characteristics slowly meld into a scintillating sprinkling of figurations in the instrument’s extreme ranges.

Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Variations predate the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. The variations are based on an original theme from his ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus – but also employ the ‘pre-variation’ melody that Beethoven used in the symphonic finale. The piano variations are similarly structured, even more ambitious in scope – and served as a superb springboard for Aimard to demonstrate his gift for not only bringing incisive and often-witty character to each variation but uncommon knack for spinning out an outsize structure in a manner that is wholly satisfying – and brought an unexpected, tightrope-walking balance of wit, warmth and poetry to the massive finale that begins with an intense fugue and ends with one of Beethoven’s grandest codas of all.

Aimard returned the audience’s praise with a Webern rarity: his 1924 Kinderstück, played remarkable delicacy – and, sadly, marred by some unwelcome coughs. Lincoln Center (like Carnegie Hall already does) should dispense complimentary cough drops, an investment that would only add to the value of exceptionally satisfying performances such as Aimard’s.

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