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Aimard Plays Sixth and I

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Scriabin / Y. Sudbin


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Scriabin / V. Ashkenazy

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Scriabin (inter alia) / A. Lubimov

It seemed unjust that the recent recital by Marc-André Hamelin should have been so poorly attended. Tonight, Washington Performing Arts Society hosts another first-class pianist who may not have the name clout to draw a full house, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, starting at 8 pm in the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Suffice it to say, for anyone who has thought about skipping this concert, that Aimard's recitals in the area -- in Baltimore in 2008 and La Maison Française in 2007 -- have been among the best to be covered in these pages. His recordings, particularly of modern composers like Messiaen and Ives, are equally worthy.

The strength of an Aimard recital often comes down to the choice of music, and this program combines four very different takes on the sonata form: Wagner's rarely heard Sonate für das Album von Frau MW, Liszt's B minor sonata (along with a few other Liszt pieces to celebrate the anniversary year), Alban Berg's op. 1 sonata, and the unforgettable ninth sonata of Scriabin, known as the Black Mass. The comparison of Wagner and Liszt is intriguing, the Berg sonata is a genre-bending atonal work (last heard live from Ieva Jokubaviciute). Of all of these pieces, it is perhaps the Scriabin that we most look forward to hearing Aimard play.

Scriabin did not give this rather short piece -- around eight or nine minutes, in one multi-section movement -- its distinctive nickname: that was added later, by analogy to the earlier White Mass sonata, for the piece's focus on dissonant intervals, especially the minor ninth and tritone. It is a piece that can be fiendishly difficult, with enough notes in thick enough textures to warrant being written on three staves in some places, and there are some unusual metric changes (not always evident to the ear). A great performance, however, is not merely flashy but catches something of the diabolical (or simply légendaire, the myth-oriented word that Scriabin put over the opening bar under the tempo marking, followed later by mystérieusement murmuré). Once you get to the second large section, Molto meno vivo, there are even more curious words of advice to the performer, like pur, limpide contrasted with perfide and even empoisonnée. In a typically perverse way, Scriabin labeled this mixture of sensual and corrupt, especially in the second theme (avec une langeur naissante), as reminding him of a "slumbering holy entity" surrounded by "evil spells."

The work has been recorded many times -- including by Marc-André Hamelin, a complete set I have yet to hear -- and in preparation for this evening, I pulled three interpretations off the shelf to compare notes. Yevgeny Sudbin's performance is the most recent and the most exciting, with less exaggerated rubato and a sharper use of the pedal, admirable for its force and directness (more by way of speed than over-muscularity). The older recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy is almost distrait, with a murky, aimless approach to the opening motif, which Scriabin reportedly told a friend was "almost not music, not a melody, but speech, an incantation in tones." In the full-throated ending, Ashkenazy wallops the piano too rudely, making a sound at times too loud and hammered. By contrast Alexei Lubimov is more understated, making the Black Mass part of a very intriguing, dark-themed recital program. The last truly great live performances of Scriabin to reach these ears were by Håkon Austbø in 2005 and Ruth Laredo in 2004 (sadly not long before she died), with a fine set of the smaller pieces from Yuja Wang last year. Something tells us that Aimard's recital this evening will include a memorable version of Black Mass.

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays this evening (May 5, 8 pm) at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

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