Chamber Music No.7

Le merle noir
Piano Sonata No.2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”

Pierre Laurent Aimard (piano)
Emily Beynon (flute)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 August, 2004
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Having featured his Fourth Symphony earlier this Proms season, it was fitting that Ives’s other culminating work be included too. And who better to perform the Concord Sonata than Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose recent recording has set new standards as an interpretation for the present era.

Those having heard that account will have found this performance similar in almost all essentials. Aimard fairly powers his way through the opening ‘Emerson’ movement, articulating its densely-argued sonata design so that the dizzying ebb and flow of the musical argument is not only intelligible but also vividly communicative. The phantasmagoric scherzo that is ‘Hawthorne’ sped past, but not so as its finely-judged humour and textural inventiveness was at all compromised – Aimard and page-turner passing the wooden rule, employed for the cluster-chords in the first trio, between them with the finesse of an Olympic relay team.

The intermezzo of ‘The Alcotts’ can be made to yield even greater emotional fervour, but Aimard’s cool sincerity was entirely in keeping with his overall conception, and made a natural foil for ‘Thoreau’ – the nocturnal finale in which the striving of the previous movements is made ethereal and other-worldly: transcendental in the fullest sense.

Integral to the depth of this final movement is the brief but thematically vital flute part – plaintively taken here by Emily Beynon, whose duties as principal flautist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra means that she is heard all too infrequently in London these days. Good that she was given an additional chance to shine at the opening of the recital – with Messiaen’s Le merle noir. Written as a test-piece for the Paris Conservatoire in the early 1950s, this belongs to the relatively brief phase when the composer was absorbed in evolving his own type of integral serialism. Yet there’s nothing in the least forbidding about the six-minute miniature, in which the blackbird’s song is apostrophised in a manner both elegant and capricious – an evocative gem and an illuminating entrée into the main work on the programme.

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