Goldfish Out Of Water
Alban Berg: Sonata
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 23
Franz Liszt: St. Francois de Paule
Claude Debussy: Images, Books 1 & 2
Gyorgy Ligeti: Three Etudes
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
December the third marks the anniversary of the birth of two of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, Anton Webern and Maria Callas. In this first official year of the new millennium, it also saw the Carnegie Hall debut recital of French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. His affinity with the musical language of Webern is clear; in fact, growing up in the maison of Olivier Messiaen and being instructed by that modern icon of the keyboard Yvonne Loriod, Aimard initially came to this city already certified as a modern music specialist. His inclusion of the Sonata of Alban Berg on his first solo program is an acknowledgement of his debt to the Second Viennese School. Similarities to La Divina are a bit more elusive, but as a performer I have found him in the past to be a fearless risk-taker, seeming to enjoy walking the high wire without a net. With the naked courage of the superstar, Aimard is even willing to abandon the comfortable vocabulary of Boulez and Ligeti and present for this extremely high profile event an adventurous foray into the difficult and esoteric labyrinth of Beethoven!
A dramatic reading of the Berg was marred by a number of inaccuracies. Perhaps the soloist, surrounded by microphones set up to capture this event for a future CD, was a bit nervous, especially if he sensed, as I certainly did, a pronounced restlessness of the crowd (this sonata, written in 1908, was dismissed by the people sitting behind me as “contemporary”). After waiting for a lengthy seating of the latecomers, Aimard bit off a little more Beethoven than he could properly chew. The risk having been taken in the programming, the performance was surprisingly deliberate, the approach disappointingly gingerly. Normally, one of this artist’s strongest technical abilities is his solid enunciation of every note in long and difficult runs; in this piece, constructed on just such acrobatic maneuvers, there were many little wrong turns in the arduous journey. Aimard also has the annoying habit of holding down the individual keys a bit too long, creating an unwelcome drone that is at best dissonantly disturbing, at worst downright embarrassing and ugly. The andante was the best section of the first half, but, at the interval, I could only characterize this event as unremarkable.
But leaving terra firma for the realm of water seemed to restore this important pianist’s confidence. Like Rusalka, he appears to be more at home in liquid surroundings. His particular mastery of horizontal tonal clustering was spectacularly displayed in the ambuscades of notes representing the waves over which St. Francis’ cloak carried him from Sicily to the mainland and, when he settled in to the watery world of the Images, his touch communicated subtle, if not superb, hints of poesy. One could still hear the hammers striking the metal (and there was always that damned drone with which to contend), but, in pieces like Poissons d’or, there was at least the sense that this performer understands the aesthetics of the floating world.
I looked down for a moment to orient myself a little by glancing at the titles of the etudes to come and that projection in the middle of the backdrop on the stage which admonishes patrons to extinguish their cellular phones before the performance (with, by the way, disappointing results) must have flashed the message “exit in case of Ligeti” because literally hundreds of people were running from the hall when I peered up from my program. This was most unfortunate for Monsieur Aimard had been saving the best for last. In this language he is possibly the most fluent of the current crop of soloists and he proceeded to dazzle and amaze in the very first intense fusillade, dispelling my early sorrow with an inhuman amount of notes (all presumably as printed on the music paper which he brought out with him) whimsically labeled by the composer Desordre. After a thoughtful traversal of the much calmer Cordes vides, this modern specialist cranked it up again for another of his patented high torque readings, this time of Automne a Varsovie. We had to wait quite a while, but those of us who remained had the sense, however brief, that we were in the presence of a true interpretive authority.
The concert was recorded for CD release in 2002 and this experience had a deleterious effect on the evening as a whole. In addition to obvious hesitancy which I can only ascribe to the pressure of a combination of a Carnegie debut and the appendages of an infernal machine set to document every hiccup ringing the artist like police waiting for a confession, there was a palpable sense of import which, instead of ennobling the proceedings, simply weighed them down. Aimard waited an inordinately long time between each Debussy piece, hoping for a level of silence unrealistic in today’s twittering concert hall environment, and even committing at least one false start in the process. Further, it appeared that the program itself had been tailored for the marketplace, as if including the two Teutonic works would show off this performer’s versatility and induce more customers to purchase the finished product. Since my musician friends have enlightened me to the reality that “live” recordings tend to be a daisy chain of studio retakes, the resulting issue will probably be a lot more satisfying than the original recital. The real artists in that medium don’t employ a keyboard but rather an airbrush.
Frederick L. Kirshnit