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7.5.11

Aimard Unravels Fraying Edge of Tonality

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Ravel, Piano Concertos / Miroirs, P.-L. Aimard, Cleveland Orchestra, P. Boulez
(2010)
Richard Wagner, author of the treatise Das Judentum in der Musik, likely never imagined that his music would be performed in a historic synagogue in the capital of the United States of America. On Thursday night, however, it happened when French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, gave a WPAS-sponsored recital at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue. The program, combining four one-movement re-imaginings of the piano sonata form (by Wagner, Berg, Scriabin, and Liszt), was even more ingenious than it was described in my preview earlier this week. Three short Liszt pieces, all experiments with the dissolution of tonality and traditional musical forms from Liszt's final years, prefaced each of the first three, shorter sonatas. In every case, the ambiguous ending of the Liszt piece obscured the aural boundary with the piece that followed it, an effect enhanced by Aimard's insistence on silence throughout the entire first half, his hands held intentionally on the keyboard as if the piece had not yet ended.

Liszt's La lugubre gondola I, S. 200, is a somewhat aimless description of a funeral gondola seen in Venice, possibly a reference to Liszt's premonition of the impending death of Wagner. Played in its original, shorter barcarolle version, Aimard went for murky and morose, the wandering left hand topped by a ringing right-hand melody, helped to resonate with plenty of pedal. After its curious ending came, as if summoned up by the evocation of Liszt's music, one of Wagner's brief "Album Sonatas," the one composed for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner's early patrons who was also the object of the composer's affections. Sweet A♭ major dispelled the funereal gloom, as Wagner's sentimental melodies were given careful expansion. The piece is torqued up into a more turbulent expression of these themes, with lots of dramatic chromatic movement reminiscent of Wagner's operas. The augmented chord motif in Liszt's tonally ambiguous Nuages gris, S. 199, was a fine introduction to Berg's op. 1 piano sonata, which is ostensibly in B minor but pushes beyond the boundaries of its tonal center. Where the Liszt work was little more than a whisper -- traces of semi-dark clouds -- Aimard gave the Berg sonata a full-bodied expressionism, its chromatic, dissonant gestures reaching up in volume to angry howls.

Finally, Liszt's Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S. 208, seemed perfectly suited to introduce Scriabin's ninth piano sonata, known as the Black Mass -- the Liszt like a signpost warning of impending disaster, the insidious erotic poisoning of a "sleeping holy entity" as one might deduce from the colorful markings in Scriabin's score. After Liszt's mysterious opening, a somber recitative in octaves, Aimard hammered the dotted-rhythm motif like a clarion distress call, with rumbling bass octaves underneath. The building up of dissonant intervals into crashing cluster chords was quite similar to what Scriabin does in the Black Mass sonata with tritones, minor seconds, and minor 9ths. The strange ending of the Liszt, with the sound dying away on a half-stated bass theme, set up Scriabin's floating, disembodied opening theme, which Aimard centered on its slithering chromatic upper melody. Anxious trills, like gasps or bird twitterings, swooped back and forth erratically. Aimard did not mark or emphasize the later repeated-note motif, allowing it to percolate inside the texture, creating a bubbling, frenetic energy that grew to a roiling furor in the concluding fast section. This was subtle playing that never pushed the hall's Steinway, in a rather wet acoustic, beyond what it could take.


Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (Washington Post, May 7)

Alex Baker, Aimard plays Liszt, Scriabin, Berg, Wagner (Wellsung, May 7)

Colin Eatock, Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard shines through the gloom (Toronto Globe and Mail, May 2)
It was frankly a little surprising that Aimard chose to pair this ingenious first half with Liszt's B minor sonata, a piece that is played so often as to have become routine, in spite of its obvious appeal. Performances at Washington-area recitals have tended to classify the pianist somewhere along the continuum of being able to toss off all the technical challenges, or not, and present the form and poetry of the piece, or not. On one hand, Aimard's rendition did not have the steely technical finish of Yuja Wang or Denis Matsuev, especially in the rapid octaves, and to accommodate some of the challenges he (wisely) took slower tempi in some passages. On the other, this was an extremely well thought out interpretation -- in competition with that of Anna Vinnitskaya in 2008 -- with many surprising voicings and textures brought out in unusual ways: a particularly wistful Romantic turn in the slower rhapsodic sections (without becoming too indulgent in application of rubato), and an almost toneless thud to the big, heavy chords, the combination of sharp attack and equal, shallow sound making a noise almost like thunder. A fast, crisp fugal section recalled Aimard's intellectual approach to Bach, for example. A slight underplaying throughout the piece paid off in the explosive end of the coda, where Aimard unleashed the piano and lashed his playing louder and faster to the point of becoming unhinged, a thrilling conclusion to a worthy recital.

Later this month (May 20, 8 pm), WPAS presents the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall: Charles Dutoit conducts music by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Walton's violin concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist.

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