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Aimard's Contrapuntal Passion

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, The Art of Fugue, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano

(released March 11, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7345
Of all of the remarkable piano recitals we have heard this week -- Lang Lang, Yundi Li, and even last night's farewell concert by Alfred Brendel (review tomorrow) -- the Palm Sunday concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Shriver Hall was the most revelatory. It began with the first eleven Contrapunctus movements of Bach's encyclopedic statement on counterpoint, Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080. Aimard has just released a complete recording of the work, played from a slightly different version of the printed score, edited by Christoph Wolff. As Jens has written recently about hearing Aimard play the entire Art of Fugue live in Munich, Aimard's Baltimore program, mixing Bach's contrapuntal masterpiece with contrapuntal works by Beethoven and Schoenberg, was actually more palatable.

In suitably monastic attire (glasses and simple black), Aimard launched into the Art of Fugue selections in a gentle tempo, voicing each entry of the subject with care. The fugue represents the crux between the medieval and Renaissance conception of music, as overlapping horizontal lines, and the common practice conception of harmony dominated by a single melody, and Bach's late masterpiece represents a sort of pivot at the end of the Baroque period. Bach's collection begins with four simple fugues, the second of which introduces a countersubject in notes inégales, taken by Aimard at a more driven tempo. The third and fourth movements use the inverted form of the subject, which Aimard set against a sinuous reading of the highly chromatic countersubject of III and a severe interpretation of the constant stream of notes in IV.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist
After a long pause, Aimard's voicing of the counterfugues helped the ear pick out the subject and its inversion from the thicket of overlapping parts. Picking up on the second use of notes inégales in VI, Aimard lent it the feeling of a gigue, with the subject closely layered upon itself. In VII, he managed to make the longer notes of the augmented forms of the subject ring alongside the other bustling statements. The final section presented here, the double and triple fugues, was as stunning an achievement as it is in the recording, especially the percolating IX and intense X. A few notes fell in the cracks here and there, but the effect was much gentler and varied in tone than the recording, where a harshness of attack and sameness of color may be a result of the close capture of sound.

The chromatic excesses of Contrapunctus XI, during which one often wonders what key Bach will land in, led Aimard directly to his next selection after intermission, Schoenberg's Fünf Klavierstücke, op. 23. While there is much to admire about Aimard's pianism, it is his shrewd programming that is his real virtuosity, as in the intellectually spectacular recital and chamber music program he gave at La Maison Française last year. While the Art of Fugue is Aimard's first Bach recording, he is much better known for his modern repertory, like Ligeti or the Concord Sonata. Aimard brought the same sense of contrapuntal layering to the Schoenberg pieces, which are an exercise in organization that likely would have fascinated Bach. For all their atonal innovation, the composers of the Second Viennese School are extraordinarily formalist, so connected to musical traditions other than tonality. There are few more convincing champions of this kind of music (perhaps Maurizio Pollini), and Aimard made as much as he could of connections between Schoenberg and his predecessors, casting the Langsam movement as a sort of intermezzo and the Walzer as a dance of graceful pirouettes, finally twisting out of sight.

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The pleasant buzz of conversation after the Schoenberg was cut short by the final work, Beethoven's penultimate piano sonata (A-flat major, op. 110). It was the only piece that Aimard played from memory, featuring a gossamer touch in the first movement, with filigreed arpeggiation. The sunny melody was contrasted with a tinkling-glass minor theme section, disturbed by a quiet restlessness. In the stormy scherzo of the second movement, Aimard delighted in the metric shifts toward the offbeat. Somber chords and dreamy recitative opened the final movement, introducing the aria section where each note was supercharged with weight and dissonance was savored.

Aimard's reason for choosing this sonata was the demanding fugue, interrupted briefly by the tragic return of the slow aria, which meshed in one's mind with Schoenberg's and Bach's counterpoint, making Beethoven's use of the process even greater in the context. Introducing his encores, Aimard noted with understatement that it had been a very polyphonic program. "We have heard the fugue in the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century," he added, "but what about the 21st century?" To represent our own age, Aimard selected Caténaires by soon-to-be centenarian Elliott Carter, brilliantly played with booming jabs of sound in upper and lower ranges over a moto perpetuo of repeated notes. By way of also taking us backward to the age of Palestrina, Aimard also offered the inversus half of Contrapunctus XVIII from Art of Fugue, one of the most austere and theoretically weighty movements, a four-part mirror fugue, meaning that you can turn the score upside down and play it as a real piece of music. No matter how complex Schoenberg or Carter may be, Bach is even more so.

The final concert in the Shriver Hall series will feature the Choir of King's College, Cambridge (April 13, 5:30 pm), at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. Shriver Hall's next season will include an 80th birthday concert by Leon Fleisher (playing four-hands piano with Katherine Jacobson, Yefim Bronfman, and Jonathan Biss), as well as concerts by pianist Radu Lupu, contralto Ewa Podles, pianist Ingrid Fliter, flutist Emmanuel Pahud, harpsichordist Richard Egarr (playing the Well-Tempered Clavier), and tenor Ian Bostridge.

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