Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Lincoln Center: The Liszt Project – II

La lugubre gondola [second version]
Piano Sonata in A flat, ‘Fur das Album von Frau MW’
Nuages gris
Piano Sonata, Op.1
Unstern! sinistre, disastro
Piano Sonata No.9 in F, Op.68 (Black Mass)
Piano Sonata in B minor

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 22 April, 2012
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerPierre-Laurent Aimard, one of the most stimulating and profound interpreters, programmed this second and concluding recital of his Liszt Project with six pieces (several seldom performed) that all relate to the B minor Piano Sonata.

Aimard began the first half with the second version of La lugubre gondola, which Liszt began writing in Venice in 1882, four years before his death. During his final years, Liszt’s musical language had become more complex. The music evokes an eerie twilight, infused with strange harmonic motion and unstable melodic lines. Except in the middle section, where Liszt reverts to type with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics, this elegy contains characteristics much in tune with the quieter moments of his Piano Sonata written some thirty years earlier.

Richard Wagner’s Piano Sonata, written for Mathilde Wesendonck (with whom he had an affair in the 1850s), although composed at about the same time as Liszt’s Sonata, differs from it in both style and character. In fact, the influence of Schubert is more apparent than that of Liszt, notwithstanding Wagner’s repetitions of the principal theme throughout its ten minutes – a cyclical technique utilized by Liszt. Simply, yet sensitively, Aimard caressed that theme with charm and angelic beauty, and brought fiery intensity to the impassioned middle section.

Another late Liszt work, Nuages gris (Dark Clouds), has an introspective character that may have resulted from the composer’s depression. Liszt connects a quasi-impressionistic mood with passages from his Sonata, and similarly treats the principal theme as an idée fixe. Aimard imparted a distinctive character to each tone as they floated through empty space without purpose or goal.

Alban Berg’s early Piano Sonata can be viewed as carrying forward Liszt’s experiments with tonality before the younger composer came to embrace twelve-tone principles. The single movement retains classical structure, but its harmonic design approaches atonality. Aimard was in complete command of the high tension generated by its complex polyphony – a characteristic that Berg shares with Liszt – and the subtle expressiveness of the performance perceptively plumbed the work’s depths.

It is unclear what ‘disaster’ caused Liszt to compose Unstern! sinistre, disastro – perhaps his fall down a flight of stairs that caused him long-term health problems. A sense of impending doom hovers over much of this brief piece, in which Liszt subverts tonal stability, generates tension with passing dissonances, and sounds an agitated warning with shattering force. After the terror of catastrophe abates, the work ends quietly, internalizing the fear that generated it. Aimard’s gave a taut, riveting performance.

The last-composed piece, dating from 1912-13, was the ‘Black Mass’ Sonata of Alexander Scriabin, whose music has long been recognized as having been influenced by Liszt. In tune with the morose mood engendered by Liszt’s final pieces, Scriabin’s strange witches’ brew of ethereal meditation, pagan mystery, wanton passion and writhing fury cast an hypnotic spell in Aimard’s astounding performance.

In the second half, Aimard wove strands from each of the pieces heard before intermission into his characterization of the B minor Sonata’s dark imagery. In a single movement lasting around thirty minutes, Aimard drew us deeper and deeper into the essence of Liszt’s mysterium. From his emphatic treatment of the opening bars, Aimard drove the music onward with electric energy, the spine-tingling theme wending its way through to the rhapsodic counter-subject with demonic furor. His dazzling technique and muscularity were electrifying, and his exquisite treatment of the softer lyrical passages sublime. Despite the work’s contrapuntal complexity, important motifs were never buried. Dramatic climaxes were heightened with awesome force and intensity, and the Fugue was played with a wild furor that left one breathless.

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