La lugubre gondola [second version]
Piano Sonata in A flat, ‘Fur das Album von Frau MW’
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: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 7 December, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
A month ago, Pierre-Laurent Aimard aired one part of his Liszt Project in a programme saturated with the colours and textures of nature at its most plentiful. His second programme (disc one of his Liszt Project recording) inhabited much darker territory – during the interval someone referred to it as a musical misery-fest – and was delivered with the same fierce, recital-as-artwork concentration, with the six works in the first half played (this time from memory) without applause.
The hook was Liszt’s influence, through his B minor Piano Sonata, on other one-movement sonatas. It wasn’t clear what light, if any, Wagner’s example (composed for Mathilde Wesendonck) shone on Aimard’s didactic purpose. It was written around the same time (1853) as the Liszt and is barely worth programming. You could hear various compositional processes emerging out of the prosaic writing; and, indeed, it sounded like a piano reduction of an orchestral score. Frau Wesendonck got a much better deal from her ardent admirer with the songs he wrote for her. Its conventional harmonies, though, did demonstrate how tonally detached the other pieces are, with Liszt almost seeming to grant permission for such harmonic license with some truly nihilistic music.
The subverted barcarolle of La lugubre gondola is aimless and colourless enough – no wonder Wagner thought that his father-in-law was losing it – but the tritone-obsessed, directionless point was reinforced by the bleak, shape-shifting landscape-in-the-sky of Nuages gris and the even more negative, hope-free Unstern! sinistre, disastro (roughly but inadequately translated as ‘extremely unlucky dark star’). Aimard’s connection with these life-denying pieces, way beyond any notions of easeful death, was extraordinarily intense, possessed by and possessing the music, and played with disarming frankness. The way Alban Berg’s Sonata emerged out of Nuages gris came almost as a relief – here was structure, a recognisable sense of romance, some light – even though they share the same atonal rootlessness.
The Berg was the highlight of the first half, with Aimard manipulating its dense, referential tissue of ideas with clear-headed, objective passion. After the crisis and anguish of the Liszt, it sounded positively liberated as well as being a complete expression of its febrile time. The lurid extravagances of Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ Sonata sounded almost conventional by comparison, and Aimard made the point that this is what people understand by late-romantic piano music and gave its overheated spirituality its head. He played it with impressive strength and fluency, but even his persuasive advocacy didn’t convert me to the Scriabin cause.
After the interval, and a change of piano, came B minor Liszt, the work that sums him up as pianist and composer, showman, romantic hero, artistic and spiritual guru. If Aimard sounded a bit reserved at first, he was only gathering himself for a performance that grew with magisterial command. Sublimely idealistic and without a trace of sentimental posturing, his playing had all the fire, intelligence, stamina and virtuosity to do justice to this eruption of effortful striving.