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Aimard Chases the Fugue

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J. S. Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, P.-L. Aimard

(released on August 19, 2014)
DG 479 2784 | 112'05"
Every performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard is full of unexpected things, and his recital at the Library of Congress on Friday night was no different. The experience of watching the French pianist play some of the preludes and fugues from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier -- what he did with the sustaining pedal, how he approached the keyboard -- helped me understand the sounds that are captured on his recent recording of the work.

Most of the Bach preludes and fugues were fairly close to how they were rendered on the disc, especially the pair in E-flat minor, one of the highlights of both recording and recital -- the operatic lament of the prelude heavily pedaled, the fugue a little deliberate. The A-flat prelude was one of the pieces that ticked away like a clock, with Aimard's quirky rolling of chords to set it apart. There Aimard applied the pedal in a fluttering way, while in the C# minor fugue, the pedaling created a resonant wash-like acoustic effect. In the F-sharp prelude, by contrast, the two voices danced in a clean and articulate way, the three lines of the fugue each given an independent character. Sometimes the choices were extravagantly weird, like the choppy, even truculent insistence on bringing out the subject in the E-flat fugue, or the endless trill in the tenor voice on the final chord of the G minor fugue, marking that Picardy third for what seemed like an eternity, just in case you missed it. The most complicated fugue, the A minor, reveled in untangling each strand of this complex web of moving parts. The B-flat prelude was shaped as a sort of wild toccata, with a rather fast take on the fugue, which helped make this piece into a convincing conclusion for the Bach selections.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, French pianist Aimard delivers strange recital at Library of Congress (Washington Post, November 10)
Beethoven's A-flat sonata, op. 110, was equally odd, the arpeggios light and feathery, with the pedal deployed again to create an often murky sound. Aimard took almost no pause before launching into the scherzo, with its silly folk-song references (snatches of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt, or 'Our cat has had kittens', and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, or 'I'm a slob, you're a slob') all performed with an archly raised eyebrow. The recitative introduction to the last movement had a mercurial spontaneity, but what Aimard was really after here was its concluding fugue, which spun rapidly out of control from the moment the subject returns in inverted form. Not that it fell apart, although there were a few loose spots, but in trying to observe Beethoven's tempo marking literally ("poi a poi nuovo vivente") you had the sense of Beethoven forcing the music out of the performer's control -- that is, the fugue, most controlled of forms, slips out of its collar and runs away.

The final piece, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op. 24, by Brahms, was probably a case of the musician biting off more than he could chew, a long-winded and exhausting work that was not entirely in Aimard's fingers or brain. There were many intriguing diversions: the sweet perdu quality of the fifth variation, the sotto voce sixth, the hunting calls and obsessive horse-galloping motif in the left hand of seventh. The lesson, ultimately, is that even the best fugues of both Beethoven and Brahms are not half as ingenious as a Bach fugue, perhaps because they were trying to be twice as clever.

The next concert at the Library of Congress will feature recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute and Ensemble Caprice (November 21).

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