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Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Maison Française

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is another Ionarts favorite. Since winning the Olivier Messiaen Competition in 1973 and becoming a founding member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Pierre Boulez, Aimard has been a champion of contemporary music. As he showed yet again in a Monday evening recital at La Maison Française, it is not just that he plays contemporary music in all styles but also that he plays it so well, so musically, with such understanding. Aimard's recording of the Ives Concord Sonata, for example, lays bare the structure and sense of one of the most complex pieces of the 20th century. Aimard does more than champion: his playing of contemporary music can proselytize.

This was at least part of the goal of this kaleidoscopic and enigmatic recital, a selection of 40-some short pieces and excerpts of longer pieces, played without intermission. With microphone in hand, Aimard guided us through the five sets he had constructed, in a collage-montage, a "game" to bring together different pieces, that perhaps should not be put together, to create a mosaic or patchwork. With masterful technique and a sure-footed sense of musical shape, Aimard gave life to this Frankenstein monster, which unlike Mary Shelley's horrific creation was more beautiful as a patchwork than any of its single component parts.

The first section, Prélude Elémentaire, dealt with the basics of sound, opening with pieces by Ligeti and Bartók that developed extensively through repetitions of a single note. This blossomed into a pair of pieces, by Schoenberg and Bartók, based on thirds, and finally into pieces by Webern and Boulez in the 12-tone style. A "slow movement" that explored the extremes of expressivity and ambiguity called Sostenuto followed, with highlights including a Scriabin prelude, the Janáček Intermezzo erotico, and especially Marco Stroppa's Ninna-nanna from Miniature Estrose (1991-95), a work based on tremulo figures and Doppler effects. In that setting, the 20th variation of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations almost sounded atonal.

This was the stunning effect of Aimard's juxtaposition of atonal and tonal selections, so that the end of one dovetailed perfectly with the next, often pivoting on the same note or chord. This was most striking in the third section, Intermezzo zodiacal, where Romantic sublimations of country dances like the Ländler, mostly by Schubert, alternated with movements from Karlheinz Stockhausen's Zodiac. (Was it a coincidence that this suite of pairings ended with the Virgo movements, which happens to be Aimard's astrological sign?) No matter how far toward the fluffy Romantic stereotype the selection went, even Liadov's A Musical Snuffbox and an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, the pattern made Stockhausen seem only a step away.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, An Amalgam Of Composers, One Insightful Whole (Washington Post, May 9)

Anthony Tommasini, At Carnegie Hall, the pianist Aimard creates unorthodox connections (New York Times, May 15)
The evening closed with a scherzo-type movement called Capriccio and a tribute to musical farewells, Cloches d'adieu. In the former, Beethoven bagatelles battled with flighty works by Stockhausen, Scarlatti, and John Cage. In a tribute to the experimental leanings of a previous age, Aimard included the mysterious Sphinxes movement from Schumann's Carnaval, by pressing down the keys corresponding to the notated pitches in the composer's formula, without allowing the strings to make any sound. (John Cage probably would have approved of the extended cell phone ring that interrupted much of this section of the concert, as always with concert-destroying sounds set to the most ridiculous melody one could imagine.)

Bells that bid adieu included Schoenberg's farewell to his teacher, Mahler; Kurtág's tribute to the musicologist Lászlo Dobszáy; and Tristan Murail's farewell to his teacher, Messiaen, based in turn on Messiaen's anguished piece on the death of his mother. The violet-orange dissonance in the Messiaen excerpt meshed so perfectly with the extended harmony in an excerpt of Ravel's Gibet from Gaspard de la nuit, that the listener was forcably reminded just how close the sound worlds of those two composers really are. So as not to leave us with the grim sounds of the clanging death knell and the slithering chords of the gallows, Aimard closed with an excerpt from the Great Gate of Kiev movement from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Although it struck me that Debussy's prelude La cathédrale engloutie would have served aptly as an encore on the theme of tintinnabulation, Aimard was not tempted to add another word to his powerful discourse.

The 2008 season at La Maison Française, while not yet fully announced, will include a performance by Les Folies Françoises and a solo recital by Alexandre Tharaud, both postponed from this year's season. This month's remaining concert is a recital by violist Roger Tapping and pianist Judith Gordon (May 24, 7:30 pm).


Anonymous said...

Very jealous you got to hear Aimard play part of Stroppa's Miniature estrose. What a magical piece.

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, I need to get to know that piece better. The excerpt was the high point of that section of the concert. I wish Aimard would record it. I know that he gave the premiere of the first book.

Garth Trinkl said...

Marc, when it was announced on Monday evening, here at the French Embassy, that Pierre Laurent Aimard and Friends was going to be repeating the two programs at both Carnegie Hall and in Chicago this and next week, I assumed both evenings were going to be performed in both cities. But now I see only the 'PLA and Friends' evening listed for Chicago. But that concert, too, was equally stunning and not to be missed.

I agree that the Marco Stroppa 'Ninna-nanna' movement was a highlight of the solo piano evening; along with, for me, the three Kurtag works ('Doina', of which, was repeated the second evening, but to lesser effect).
[I missed the Stroppa cello work performed at the National Gallery last month and can't find the web reference.]

Charles, many thanks for your superb reviews of the Pierre Laurent Aimard solo recital; as well as of Anna Maria Pammer and Markus Vorzellner at the NGA, and Jenufa at the Washington National Opera.