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Die Kunst der Fugue: Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Baltimore

The month of March offers Washingtonians a plethora of opportunities to hear great pianists - Lang Lang, Yundi Li, Matthias Soucek, and Alfred Brendel. (A short preview can be found here.) But perhaps most intriguing is a recital that will take place in Baltimore at Shriver Hall.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard's praises have been sung over and over on Ionarts and if you don’t mind the trip to Baltimore, there has scarcely been a better reason this year to go than his recital on Sunday, March 16th. Freshly signed with Deutsche Grammophon which will issue his recording of The Art of the Fugue this Tuesday, Aimard will present eleven Contrapuncti from the severe Art of the Fugue, but he will also play Beethoven’s penultimate Piano Sonata op.110 and Schoenberg’s Pieces op.23.

Having had the pleasure of hearing Aimard earlier this year in a recital of the complete Kunst der Fuge (review below), the prospect of variety and “Bach in context” in the Baltimore program has even more allure than the all-Bach alternative. As a fiercely intelligent and indubitably tasteful musician, Aimard’s recital will attract anyone in the region who is serious about their pianist-consumption.

Ionarts at Large: Aimard in Bach

available at AmazonBach, The Art of the Fugue, Pierre-Laurent Aimard
(released March 11, 2008)
DG 477 7345
MusicWeb International's Mark Berry (no relation to our Mark with an "a") starts his review of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Wigmore Hall recital of Bach’s Art of the Fugue by stating: “impressive in many ways and yet also oddly unsatisfying.” I heard Aimard in the same program in Munich's Herkulessaal just a week before (January 12th), and I couldn’t sum up my own impression more appropriately. The question in my mind was “why”, and the answer probably has more to do with my own expectations than Aimard’s playing.

I don’t think I have ever written about this French Pianist without using at least two superlatives. Indeed, Aimard comes across as so intellectual and serious about music, that when Deutsche Grammophon signed a contract with him, by extension they too, came across as taking classical music very seriously: Because he isn’t a flashy star or wunderkind, because he isn’t the most readily marketable, and because the music he plays isn’t all that accessible. He isn’t even very sexy. (Although… in my estimation anyone who can play Messiaen or Ligeti like he does, actually is.)

Aimard, who turned 50 last September, was a student of Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen’s wife), and mostly known for his interpretations of Boulez, Carter, Ives, Ligeti (whom he inspired to write the Études), Stockhausen, Manoury, Tabachnik, and Messiaen. His favourite recording combines Steve Reich, Ligeti, and tradition Central African Pygmy music.

But he soon explored music well beyond the contemporary realm, to highly successful results in Beethoven and Dvořák with Nicolaus Harnoncourt, who met him at early Romanticism, bringing his expertise in Baroque music. As Aimard moved away from modernism, the creative state of which does not attract him as much anymore as it did 25 years ago (interview with Matthias Siehler), it was only a matter of time when he would arrive at Bach. Bach, like Aimard’s interpretations, has a timelessness that makes the two an obvious match.

All this by lengthy way of stating that my expectations of Aimar tackling Die Kunst der Fuge were as high as can be. And to hope for nothing short of transcendence and then merely be faced with supremely played Bach meant that I was left wanting… not enthralled but happily exhausted.

There are so many ways in which the cycle of 14 Contrapuncti and Canons is played that there isn’t such a thing as a ‘regular’ order. Should one play from Contrapunctus 1 through 13, squeeze in the four canons, and end with the unfinished 14th Contrapunctus, the (mislabelled) “Fuga a 3 Soggetti”, as the C.F.Peters edition of Christoph Wolff (long time William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard, now Director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig) suggests? Or intersperse the Canons between the Fugues, grouped according to type? (Canon alla Ottava after the four Simple Fugues (I-IV) , the Canon alla Decima in Contrapuncto all Terza after the Stretto Fugues (V-VII), the Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapuncto alla Quinta after the Double and Triple Fugues (VIII-XI), then the Contrapunctus rectus and inversus of XII and XIII, followed by the last canon, Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu, and finally concluding with Contrapunctus XIV.)

Aimard chose neither, and the program notes showed a different order, still, from what he offered. (The order was the same as at the Wigmore recital.) Most notably, Aimard played all the canons together after intermission, split both, Contrapunctus XII and XIII, to surround another Contrapunctus (VIII and VII, respectively), played the unfinished Fugue after the canons but with four more Contrapuncti to follow, and did not employ the canon of BWV668a nor Zoltán Göncz completion to ‘finish’ that which Bach left unfinished. (Allegedly, but not likely, on his deathbed.)

Aimard’s playing offered awareness of tension (I), whiffs of incense (III), brisk delicacy (IV), imposing vigor (VII), stunning facility (especially in X), surprising weightiness (in the left hand in IX, for example). He rolled right through the Canon alla Ottava, skipped the occasional repeat (e.g. in the Canon alla Duodecima), and imbued the extraordinarily complex Canon per Augmentationem with an air that felt like a drenching, secular prayer – the most touching moment of the evening.

In the Fourteenth Contrapunctus he managed to fully worked out its ‘inner perpetuum mobile’, that inherent, structurally necessitated forward drive that Bach’s keyboard works often develop. Since the following selections did not match that emotional intensity, it might have been preferable to hear this fugue in its traditional final position. But then, Aimard did not go for instances of (mathematical or otherwise) beauty, but a cumulative impact. He never spelled out any emotions, he made the listener strain to imagine and feel them.

Appropriate, probably, to give the audience a taste of how tough a nut this work really is. A moving experience except for the above mentioned caveat of odd disappointment and exhaustion.

The recital was presented by Winderstein Konzerte in cooperation with Bayern 4 Klassik.

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